Tonight I had the great honour of being the featured entertainment at the Adoptive Families Association of BC AGM and Awards event. I wore a pair of Spanx and felt great. Oh, and also, people liked my talk, so that felt good too. Some of the talk came from previous blog posts so you can feel free to skim stuff that’s old hat to you. Here is the text, should you be interested.
Talking to an audience in this way is not what I normally do. I normally do character monologues or comedic acting or something else involving silly wigs, but this night felt like it warranted putting aside the characters and just talking to you as me. Which may not be nearly as entertaining but we’ll hope for the best.
I want to talk to you today about family, not because I’m some kind of expert, I don’t have any advice to give you, if that’s what you were hoping for tonight, I can only say I’m sorry. If anyone has any questions about cats, I can probably answer those, but family? Super way more complicated.
As an adoptive mom, with a teenage daughter who has been known on more than one occasion to roll her eyes and say, “I’m so sick of hearing about family!” I have found myself thinking, “Well, I’m sick of hearing your music even though you have your headphones in,” but also, “You know, she’s got a point.” “Family” is sort of becoming one of those words like “tolerance” or “diversity” that we all use but when you stop and think about it, do we really know what it means?
I have a sort of weird relationship to this whole idea of family and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what family means to me and where I got my ideas about family from.
A big part of my idea of what a family should be comes from the TV show Good Times. I am aware that, as a white girl who grew up middle class in the suburbs of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, my affinity to the Evans family, Florida, James, Michael, Thelma, the annoying JJ “Kid Dynomite” and their sassy neighbour Wilona (and in later seasons her adopted daughter Penny played by a young Janet Jackson), I’m aware, that this is maybe a bit odd. But I loved that show. And I connected to it in a deep, intense way. I don’t mean that I related to this black family from the Chicago projects, with their rent parties (I didn’t even know what rent was) or the kids’ issues with gangs. But looking back now, I think it was that I felt drawn to the absolute permanence of the love in that family, the way Florida and James, the parents, were in charge, no question about it, that no matter what bad times befell their family, that couple was going to love them through. Theirs was a family that chose to make good times where others might not and I found that really captivating when I was a kid.
Aside from the obvious differences, the Evans Family from Good Times didn’t look much like mine. I grew up an only child. And that has very much informed who I am as a person. When we first started talking about adoption, my wife said, “Well, we’ll need to get more than one, because if they’re an only child, they’ll be screwed up.” I beg your—well, she’s kind of right. We only children are a little bit princessy, a little bit bossy, and we understand ourselves to be unique and precious snowflakes, no two of us alike.
When I was a kid, one of my parents was always talking about leaving. I felt anxious a lot, like everything could all fall apart at any moment and it was my responsibility to hold it together. There was a deep sadness in my mother that I couldn’t understand and I couldn’t take away, no matter how hard I tried. I recognize it now as depression but in the 70s, people weren’t talking about things like that so much. As with all people who live with mental health issues, my mother was more than her depression, she was also smart, strong and creative. One day, after asking my father repeatedly to pick his dirty underpants up in the bedroom with no response, my mother nailed said underpants to the floor, so he couldn’t. Point made, Mum.
One of my favourite memories of my family was one in which our family acted nothing like our family. We were eating dinner, soup and saltine crackers, buttered saltine crackers which now seems weird to me but I don’t know, I guess that was how we ate them in the 80s, before we understood about heart health and stuff? I don’t remember what it was my dad was saying but he was criticizing my mom in some way. My mother was very quiet, ignoring him. She just sat there, calmly buttering the cracker in her hand. My dad was staring at her, demanding an answer of some sort, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she just slowly reached across the table, and stuck the buttered side of her cracker to my father’s forehead. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had a buttered saltine stuck to your forehead, but it’s kind of startling, for one thing, and it kind of sticks there for a while, until the butter starts to melt from the heat of your forehead. And at this point, it’s safe to say, my dad’s head was pretty hot. He sat there, dumbfounded (fair enough, nobody saw that coming) as a little trickle of melted butter ran down his forehead. I sat there in shock, completely unable to move, wondering what was going to come next. And that’s when my mum started laughing, with deep, unbridled joy, which was in pretty short supply in my mum’s life. I was terrified of how my dad would react. So, I watched as the cracker slid down and off my his forehead, as he picked up one of his own crackers, and quietly and calmly buttered it, then reached across the table and stuck it on my mother’s forehead. Then he started to laugh too. And I thought to myself, “Who are these people?” These were not the kinds of things my family did! But there they both were, butter dripping down their foreheads, laughing like crazy. Which made me start laughing like crazy. Which made my mother turn to look at me, and for a second, I stopped laughing. The look on her face told me I was in trouble and I immediately regretted misinterpreting the situation. And as I was sitting there, wondering how to apologize for laughing, I was hit in the middle of the head with a buttered cracker. Which, even as a kid, I knew was a license to cracker! So, I buttered up a cracker and stuck it to my dad’s forehead, then another one to my mom’s and we all went on this way, buttering and sticking crackers on each other’s heads and laughing hysterically for several minutes. And let me tell you, it was the best. In that moment, I was so in love with my family. I felt such a sense of joy and belonging and I was happy. In that moment, nobody was threatening to leave, I didn’t feel anxious, I didn’t feel the need to take care of my mother. It felt like what I thought a family was supposed to feel like, and it felt amazing.
When I was about 20, my parents finally split up. My mother was determined to get back to who she had been, who she’d lost while in an unhappy marriage for decades. Part of this reclaiming of herself was a disclosure my mother made one day when I was visiting her. She sat me down and told me, “Five years before you were born, before your father and I were married, I got pregnant. Just before Christmas in 1965, I gave birth to a baby girl who we placed for adoption. Nobody else knew. Your dad and I haven’t talked about it since.”
I need to confess that I didn’t take well to this knowledge. You will remember that I was a unique and precious snowflake. The idea that there might be another unique and precious snowflake, very much like me, whose very existence meant that I was not, in fact, a unique and precious snowflake, was very disconcerting to me.
I was in shock, of course. But I was also relieved in a way I can’t really articulate. Years of thinking that something wasn’t right but being unable to figure out what, because I was a kid, had made me think I was crazy. I finally had an explanation for the lifelong feeling I’d had that the other shoe was about to drop. I remember yelling, “I knew it! I knew it!” Of course, I hadn’t known it, but somewhere inside me I’d known that there was something to know. Then she said something that included the phrase “your sister” and I stopped her cold. “No, no, no,” I told her. “She’s not my sister. You guys screwed up. You guys got pregnant. You have another kid, but that doesn’t make her my sister.” I feel terribly ashamed even saying those words again now. But that’s how I felt. It didn’t have anything to do with me. And now that I knew I wasn’t actually crazy, I just wanted to get on with my life.
In my 20s I came out as queer. Now, listen, if we want to talk about family, we really need to, once again, as so many times before, look to the gays. In fact, the slogan for the Pride Parade this year is “Gay! Come for the gold sequined hot pants, stay for the sense of family!” (This may not be the final version of the slogan.) When you spend your whole life knowing you’re different but you’re not quite sure how, connecting with people who are different in the same way you are means a lot. And yes, like any other community, we have infighting and we are not all the same, no one group speaks for all of us, Elton John and I have very little in common. Actually, that’s not true, we’re a lot alike, Sir Elton and I. But the point is, out of a long history of sticking together and fighting back, whether it be to change laws, to push for equality, to speak out about our safety, to take care of our youth (who, by the way, are still committing suicide in record numbers) the gay community has a pretty great track record for taking care of our own.
And I think this is due in part a term that’s big in our community, “Chosen family”. Not chosen friends, not chosen people (that was taken), but chosen family. I was lucky enough to come from a family that didn’t disown me when I came out but that’s not the story for everyone. When your family turns its back on you, you can be alone, or you can create your own family, made up of people who treat you like you believe a family should. Being chosen family actually means something. It’s not just an accident of biology, something you have no say in, it’s a choice. I choose to love you and protect you and stand by you and laugh with you and, yes, sometimes wear gold sequined hot pants with you. So, through my gay community, I came to understand that being related by blood wasn’t what mattered. And that was sort of liberating, you know?
In my mid-30s, I fell in love with somebody who decided it might be a good idea to marry me. Which I thought was ridiculous. When she brought it up, it seemed like the stupidest idea anyone had ever had. First of all, it had never occurred to me that being gay married, or garried as I like to call it, would be an option. And even if it was, I really wasn’t interested. Which very much upset my then-girlfriend. I tried to reason with her, I said, “Why do we need a piece of paper, we know we love each other, we know we want to spend our lives together, can’t we compromise? Can’t we just have a commitment ceremony?” And she said, “I don’t want to have a dumb ‘you’re good enough for a commitment ceremony but not good enough to marry’ dumb ceremony. So, like the good feminists that we are, we discussed this idea for hours, defining terms, determining what it was each of us wanted, what that would look like, and it turned out, we wanted the exact same things. We wanted to make a lifetime commitment to each other. We wanted to be a family. But we wanted to choose what that commitment and that family looked like and how it would be different than what we grew up with. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a stupid idea anymore. So I turned to her and said, “Okay, so…will you marry me?” And she said, “Do it properly! You’re supposed to get down on one knee.” So, I got up off the couch where I’d been sitting for hours and my leg had fallen asleep and I have terrible knees, they pop and they crack when I bend them, but I climbed down onto one knee and I said, “Will you marry me?” And she said, “Do it properly! You’re supposed to have a ring.” Well, I hadn’t exactly planned this, so I didn’t have a ring! But, I went into the kitchen, and I got a green twist-tie out of the junk drawer, and I made a ring, and I climbed back down onto one creaking knee, and I slipped the twist-tie ring onto her finger, and I said, “Will you marry me?” And she said, “Do it properly! You’re supposed to take your top off.”
So, we got married. But we did it our way. I wore a bright orange dress. We got married on the beach at English Bay in front of 150 friends and family members, both blood and chosen, who played the wedding march for us on kazoos. And as part of our vows, the lay chaplain who married us, after we said our “I dos”, turned to our friends gathered there, and talked about community. She talked about the challenges of relationships, she talked about how we all need support, how we are all responsible for each other in this life, and she called upon them to support us in our journey through marriage. And when she called out to the crowd, “Do you promise to support this couple for the rest of their life together?” 150 people smiling in the sunshine yelled out “We do!” And it was just about the greatest.
Marrying my wife also meant joining my wife’s family. Unlike my tiny, quiet, Canadian family of people who didn’t really talk to each other much, my wife is from a big, loud, American family. When you are in a room full of my wife’s family members, you can take your pick of conversations to participate in because there will be several going on at all times. Usually competing with the TV. Once at Christmas, in a room with ten people in it, I counted seven conversations. Which is not even mathematically possible! But that’s how they do things. And at first, I found this all extremely overwhelming.
My wife’s family is, in a way, the opposite of a chosen family. If you’re family to them, you’re family, no matter who you are, whether you fit in or not, whether you are doing a great job or screwing up your life, it doesn’t matter, you’re family. I’d say things to my wife like, “How come everybody complains about so and so but still invites him over to BBQ?” And my wife would look at me like I’m some special kind of stupid and say, “Uh…because he’s family.” If you’re family to them, you can’t screw it up! It’s like a free ticket to just do whatever you want, no matter how stupid, doesn’t matter, they’ve got a hamburger waiting for you. It’s super weird. And also, I kind of love it. You don’t need to keep one eye on the exit doors with them because there are none. Nobody’s going anywhere. They all belong. No matter what.
And when my mother died suddenly a year after my wife and I got married, my wife’s family supported me just as much as my father and my chosen family did. Which was lucky for me because, I don’t know how I would have lived through that time if I hadn’t been so surrounded by my family of all kinds. That kind of family love was new to me.
Two years ago, much of what I thought I knew about family got turned upside down when I found my birth sister. I had obtained her birth records years before so I knew her name. Over the years, I would periodically get curious and Google her, looking for clues of who or where she might be. I can tell you where every person with her name in North America lives and what they do for a living. You know, should you ever need that information. Then came Facebook. Before we all got concerned with privacy settings and locking our profiles down so no one could look at our drunken party photos without our permission, you could find out everything you ever wanted to know about a complete stranger through Facebook. And if you thought that stranger might be your sister, well then it was like a license to watch her every move online. Which I did. But I still wasn’t sure if I was ready to contact her or not.
One day I was missing my mom so much I took the day off work to lie in bed and cry like is sometimes necessary when someone you had a complicated relationship with is gone forever. When my wife came home, I told her the time had come to contact the woman I thought was my sister. I didn’t know why, it was just time. I spent the next day crafting a letter to this woman, giving her an out if she wanted one, making clear she was wanted if she wanted to be. And at 11 pm on a Saturday night, I hit send, not knowing if I’d ever get a response or not.
Twenty minutes later I received a message back. “I would very much like to correspond with you as well,” she wrote. “You will have to forgive me, I am a bit in shock.” I knew just how she felt. We talked online, and after a few days, we met in person. Growing up an only child I can’t explain the mind boggling experience of seeing my face reflected in someone else’s. It’s the jaw. It’s the mouth. It’s the horse-tail thick hair. It’s the Barney Rubble feet. She has our dad’s eyes. We have our mom’s shape. Except I’m taller. Like, way taller. At least 1/4 of an inch taller.
As time went on, we discovered traits and tics we share that can only be explained by genetics. One day we were texting and I jokingly said something about her murdering our father and burying the body (you had to be there). She replied that she could never do anything like that, that, in fact, when it rains, she picks up worms from puddles and puts them in a safe, dry spot. My heart stopped. Having been mocked my whole life for the same bleeding heart act every time it rains, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually met someone else who did that. And she was my sister. I had a sister. And I was okay with it this time.
I wish she could have known our mother. I truly feel like they would have been the best of friends. So that regret is hard. But I’m so grateful that she is able to have a relationship with our father. As time goes on and I get to know my sister more and more, I can’t imagine our family without her, even though she constantly makes me look bad. She has raised six children, mostly as a single mom, survived two types of cancer and a heart attack, yet she’s never once complained about any of it. If you let me, I will complain to you for 45 minutes about my plantars faciatis. (Seriously, you guys, it really hurts.) While I didn’t remember to call our dad until the day after his birthday last year, she painted him a picture, had it framed and mailed off long before the big day. For my birthday she hand sewed me a quilt. With her hands! I spent my whole life without a sister and now that I have one, I’m the loser sister. Great.
But I’m okay with that. Because I love her like crazy. She is my blood. You know, the blood that didn’t mean anything before? Well, I discovered that it does mean something. Maybe not always, but in our case it means a lot.
Now, you know how they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else? Well, that is how I’m learning about what makes a family now. About a year and a half ago, my wife and I added to our chosen family by adopting two kids, a boy who was 8 and a girl who was 12. Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to say that children are a joy and I didn’t really know what love was until I had children and there is no greater happiness than being a mother, but, you know, there are lots of other people who will tell you those things, probably more convincingly than I can this week. But what they might not tell you, and what I can convincingly say is holy hand grenade is it hard. It is hard, hard, hard, hard, hard. Make no mistake, it’s also great and joyful and fun and satisfying but, let’s be honest here, it’s hard. And mostly it’s hard because we are struggling to be a family with two people who don’t really know what that is. Now, I know there are great foster families out there who can give kids an understanding of what family means, unfortunately our kids didn’t benefit from one of those and, even if they had, they still wouldn’t have had what they have with us now, the element that changes everything as far as I’m concerned: forever. How are you supposed to trust forever if you’ve never had it before. And how do you adjust to being part of a family, this thing people keep telling you you’re a part of now, forever, when you’ve never been expected to do that before. How do you adjust to being accountable to other people, when no one has ever been properly accountable to or for you.
Being adopted and finding yourself part of a supposedly forever family has got to be super weird. But let’s face it, so is being a parent. For instance, the number of times I have to say “No barking in the house!” is ridiculous, considering we don’t have a dog.
Being a parent is not exactly good for my self-esteem, either. My teenage daughter accidentally saw me naked the other day and acted like the she’d witnessed the opening of the ark. However, I have found nudity to be an excellent strategy for getting kids to do things. Okay, it’s not anywhere near as inappropriate as it sounds so hear me out. No one wants to see their mom naked, right? For our kids, it’s like the worst thing that could possibly happen to them. So if I’ve had to repeat a request more than three times, like if I’ve already said “Turn off the TV and go brush your teeth please” three times, instead of a fourth I’ll just say, “Okay then,” and I’ll stand up and start taking my top off. It’s really impressive how fast our kids can move.
But even when I think we’re doing a good job, when I think we’re being good parents, our kids can knock us down a notch or two pretty quick. For instance, we are very open with our kids when it comes to talking about their bodies and sex. We use the correct names for body parts and have read Meg Hickling’s body science books and Where Did I Come From? with our son on more than one occasion. We pride ourselves on educating our kids well so that they are safe and healthy. So, it was a bit of a surprise when we found out that our son, during a sexual health talk at school recently, when the instructor asked if anyone knew where babies grow, raised his hand and answered confidently, “Inside a douchebag.”
But sometimes, I think we’re doing okay, and I even think my mom might be proud. Our son lost a tooth a while ago and I was so excited to play tooth fairy for the first time. So, I went all out. I wrote a letter from the tooth fairy on the computer, on tooth fairy letterhead I’d created, and I had the coins to leave under his pillow wrapped up inside the letter, and I crept upstairs to his room and ran smack into him as he was getting up to pee in the night. So, I quickly tried to hide the letter with the coins folded inside it, by tucking it into the back of my pajama pants. The coins, of course, did not stay there, but fell down the back of my pants, out my pantleg, and proceeded to clatter down the stairs. And I totally panicked. I tried to blame it on the cat, I was like, “Oh, did you lose your toy, Izzy? Was that your toy? Let’s go find your toy.” Luckily our son was about 3/4s asleep so he just sort of stood there, bleary eyed and confused for a second and then went back to bed. I did manage to slide the letter and the coins under his pillow after waiting about an hour to make sure he was asleep. And in the morning he was super excited about his visit from the tooth fairy and I was feeling pretty good about myself as a parent.
But then about a week later, he lost another tooth. And we aren’t entirely convinced he wasn’t now just pulling out his own teeth for cash. So, I went through the process again, writing a letter on tooth fairy letterhead that said, “Wasn’t I just here? What the heck?” and other such hilarity and when I snuck into his room that night, I discovered that instead of setting the tooth out, like we’d agreed on, he had wrapped the tooth up inside a paper towel, put it inside a crinkly, noisy, little clear plastic box, which was clenched in his little fist, under his pillow. But I was determined so I spent a good 20 minutes, slowly prying it away from him and I left the note and the money and went to sleep feeling pretty good about myself. Well, the next day, we were out somewhere and our son, very pleased with himself, told us that he had tricked the tooth fairy. That the box contained, not a tooth, but a small piece of chalk he’d whittled down, wrapped in paper towel, put inside the plastic box, because he’d hidden the tooth somewhere in his room. Oh, it was on! My wife kept him distracted while I snuck back to our house, turned his room upside down until I found that tooth, and then replaced it with another letter from the tooth fairy I’d typed up on her letterhead which he was very disappointed to find because this letter read simply, “Nice try.”
Listen, our kids are truly great. And in most ways, they are just like other kids. But in some important ways, they’re not. Most kids haven’t been through what our kids have. Most kids haven’t been hurt like our kids have. And there are a lot of times where that hurt makes it so hard for them to let themselves love and be loved. They have good reason not to trust family, or to even understand the idea of family. Which I get. It’s complicated. My own understanding of family is ever evolving but there are a few things I feel like I know for sure today. If I had to write down what I think is important about family for my kids, and for the rest of us in case it might be helpful, my list might look something like this:
It’s never too late to find your people.
The adults are in charge here; you just work on being a kid.
You are safe.
Find the Good Times where you can. Or even just listen to the theme song from Good Times occasionally. That’ll totally help.
You are loved and that doesn’t go away. No matter what.
Always remember to look to the gays.
You are part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of everything. So what you do and who you are matters.
Don’t be afraid to take your top off sometimes if you need to.
Don’t give up just because it’s hard.
Block all the exits with love.
Fight us if you feel you have to, and know that we’ll still be standing here when you’re done.
There is great power in laughter. Incite it whenever you can. Use buttered crackers if necessary.
Be brave enough to make commitments. Then keep them.
Say “we do” to your community.
Know that blood does matter. Why it matters is somewhat inexplicable but it does.
Always invite everyone to your BBQ.
Above all, choose your family. Every day. And forever.