Holiday Reading from Martha—and Best Wishes!
The Christmas before I left for college, I made three wise men out of pipe cleaners and felt. I fashioned a camel for one the size of a mouse. I hung a paper star from the ceiling to guide them to our living room.
There, a plastic creche perched under our tree. We weren’t religious, but the symbols mattered to me; they were part of the set. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, barn animals—back then, I didn’t see how unconventional this family was.
In my teens, I’d taken over the Christmas decorations. I was bossy; I was determined. My mother the artist didn’t like “crafts”; she hated diagrams for making angels. “You kids are amazing,” she’d say, with a whiff of judgment I ignored. I kept painting partridges on blown eggs for ornaments.
Even then, I was willing my childish version of a happy family into being—caring mother, stout-hearted father, loyal younger brother—or thought I was.
What makes a family real? It can be defined so many ways that I believe all families are willed into being. Or imagined. They’re like ropes of clay made by children, jammed into jars or boxes. They’re good fits; they’re bad.
In an adoptive family like mine now is, “real” is as loaded as “happy.” My son’s parents could be the ones who gave him life or the ones who are raising him. Even I have slipped when talking about his unknown birth mother with friends, calling her his “real mom.”
“All families are willed into being. Or imagined.”
My son is only beginning to do some self-willing of his own. Sometimes he’s furious with me; sometimes he’s scared and dives at my waist for a hug. At eight, the bright rope of himself is firmly braided through mine and my husband’s. We are real—of course. We don’t feel provisional.
Yet my boy has asked, “Why do people always stare at me?”
“You know, people. Strangers on the street.”
So many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with adoption. But I’ve felt compelled to explain that some people aren’t used to seeing an Asian kid with a white mom. To them, we don’t fit together.
“Why?” he shoots back. “Lots of people are mixed.”
Yes. But mixed families require an extra mental step.
People who grow up in biological families have the luxury of assuming they fit together. They rarely start out questioning the reality or strength of their bonds. Blood is thicker, blood is natural and the norm, and these natural families are the real ones by convention.
But biological families constantly mold and reconfigure themselves, too. Is it better to understand this from the get-go, to realize how much of an imaginative leap forming any family entails?
“Biological families constantly mold and reconfigure themselves, too.”
I won’t say adoptive families have an edge; that isn’t true. But we know how much work it takes to create the family you want—or think you want—and the one you get regardless.
My first Christmas home after college, I set up the pipe-cleaner wise men—as usual. I planned for when we would get our Christmas tree. I made eggnog with rum. I wore a soft red sweater I’d found on sale in Pittsburgh, where I then lived, even though it was too hot for California. I remember sweating, red streaks mixed with antiperspirant on my skin.
My mother finally snapped. “You always make me feel like I have to do a big Christmas!” she cried. “It means more to you than anyone else.”
I won’t say the illusion broke at that instant. For years, my relationship with her had been rocky. But the shame I felt then, the disappointment, all the rage that went underground, have led me to a different understanding now.
At least a decade later, before my husband and I were married, we crafted new wise men. It was the first Christmas we were living together. We both loved dinosaurs—we were geeks and punks, postmodern goofs, soul-mates—and so we created an entire dinosaur creche, complete with gold glitter on its roof.
It had a plastic T-Rex in a tiny kafiyeh as Joseph; an allosaurus decked in blue felt and a gold-wire halo was Mary. “Baby Jesusaurus” lay in a small fake nest, a flashing light rigged up behind him.
It was tacky. It was wonderful, a treasure we brought out Christmas after Christmas. We would arrange our stegosaurus sheep with glued cotton balls and camptosaurus shepherds and the gilt-painted pterodactyl flying under a pipe-cleaner star. We had built it together, without conscious thought, this mock family of biological and adoptive and extended relations.
Joseph was an adoptive dad, of course, Mary a birth mom, and God—his spark was everywhere and nowhere. But the others had gathered for one moment in time, in a barn, the wise men and shepherds and dino sheep. Perhaps all we ever have are such moments of family being, when who we love extends to everyone under a burning star.
The creche stayed packed away on our son’s first Christmas with us. We thought about bringing it out but didn’t. As a crawling baby, our little boy would put Jesusaurus in his mouth. When he was a toddler, we told each other, he’d unravel Jospeh’s kafiyeh and robe. A kindergartner, he’d play with the plastic dinos as if they were action figures.
But we knew all along that the creche wasn’t part of what our family had become. I did bring it out for a Christmas party last year, and my son watched me put it together. He was mildly amused; he didn’t understand. Now it’s the newer ornaments—a fabric turtle from Vietnam, his strings of origami cranes—that represent who we are together.
I’m not the first to quibble with Tolstoy’s distinction between happy and unhappy families in Anna Karenina. But I now embrace new versions of my family, and I offer this rewrite:
“Unreal families are all alike; every real family is real in its own way.”
Update in December 2012
After our time in Singapore last spring, my almost eleven-year-old has a new sense of his ever evolving identity and of our family. This year, we plan to display ye olde dinosaur creche again, perhaps with a few fresh touches from our boy—!
Update in December 2011
Our son is now nine going on ten, and if anything, he’s become even more self-willed. I value the creative spirit in him more than I can say. He is his own person, just as our family remains the one we make it.