March 9, 2013

Family Tree

She is a young, single mother who is unable to care for her children.  One social worker is busy buckling her children into the vehicle outside, preparing to drive them to various foster homes around the county.  A police officer stands in the doorway, a show of strength in case this emotional situation escalates and gets out of hand.  Another social worker is attempting to ask her questions for a form that she is filling out, questions that, despite their basic nature, she is suddenly incapable of comprehending.  It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.

One of the questions the social worker asks takes her momentarily by surprise: “Do you have any family members that we can contact, people who might be able and willing to care for your children?”  After thinking for a second, she shakes her head.  Regrettably, she can not think of anyone who might be able to help. 

What?  Not a single family member?  Why?  What about the children’s grandparents or aunts and uncles?  Where are the extended family members whose role it should be to support each other through difficult circumstances?  Does she really have no one?

Family trees have certainly changed throughout the years.  Gone are the deep roots and strong branches that define a family’s rich history and heritage, and that bear evidence of storms bravely weathered.  The family trees have been replaced with vines, with thin, tangled threads and fragile connections that are easily separated.   For multiple generations, relationships have been broken, families have been dysfunctional, and roles have become blurred.  So who is left to offer support?  If all of the flimsy tendrils of today’s families were painstakingly unraveled, what connections would we find?  Who would a young mother turn to in time of need?

Well, there is a grandmother with her current boyfriend. 

A grandfather with his current boyfriend.

An uncle in jail or struggling with an addiction.  An aunt who hasn’t been heard from in years.

There are single grandmothers who find themselves responsible for raising three of their grandchildren, and are simply unable to care for the fourth, fifth and sixth ones.

What about paternal grandparents?  There’s a twisted, knotted mess!  When the child is born as a result of a one time “hook up”, which happens all too frequently, the father may be long gone before the child is born.  His parents may not even realize that they have a grandchild somewhere in the world.  And even if they are aware of it, where’s the proof?  Some alleged grandparents refuse to even discuss the situation until a paternity test has been confirmed.

There are the siblings who all have different paternal grandparents because their mother has been involved with so many different men throughout the years.  One grandparent may then be faced with a dilemma:  she could take responsibility for her son’s one child, but that would mean separating half-brothers and sisters who love each other and have grown up together; or she could leave them all together in foster care.  What an impossible position to be in!

And probably the saddest scenario: children who have no extended family at all.  Their mother grew up in the flawed foster care system with no real role model or positive experience living in a family.  She is now a young adult and beginning to have children of her own, yet she is completely alone, with no support system and no idea of how to be a parent.  Her abused and neglected children are then taken into that same foster care system, perpetuating the hopeless, endless cycle.  How can such broken families ever hope to be restored?  How can these children even begin to understand what “family” means?

A family tree doesn’t just mean genealogy; it means so much more than that.  It means you have roots that grow deep into nourishing soil, finding nutrients so you can grow and thrive.  It means you have branches that offer security, and support and a safe place to build a nest.  When one branch is injured or broken, the other branches are there to break the fall, to fill in the gap.

For those of us who have been blessed with a strong, vibrant, flourishing family tree, how can we not share it?  To give fatherless children a peek into what a family should look like.  To give them an opportunity to say, Oh, I get it now. 

Now I understand that a grandfather is someone who comes to visit sometimes, who teaches me how to ride my tricycle and doesn’t mind when I keep bringing him book after book after book to read.  He’s the one who teaches me how to make silly faces and gets me all excited right before bedtime.

I finally know what a grandmother is.  She’s the one who shows me how to make boats out of sliced cheese, who treats me to ice cream at McDonalds, even if it’s too close to dinnertime.  She sends me birthday cards with $5 in it, the only time anyone ever gives me my very own money to spend!

I never actually knew before that a family could have TWO grandmas!  I haven’t met the other one in this family because she lives far away, but she’s the one who calls on the phone and talks to Mama for what seems like hours, making her laugh and sometimes cry.  She has lots of pictures of us kids on her refrigerator.

Oh, and an aunt?  That’s one of Mama’s best friends!  They go shopping together and trade recipes and give each other advice.  She’s the one who always seems to know exactly what to buy me for my birthday. 

I’ve learned what an uncle is.  He is the guy who tosses me high in the air when we are in the pool.  He lets me tag along when he and Papa go to Home Depot and invites me to “help” them work on their projects.  I sit on his lap when we’re playing a family game or having family devotions.

Cousins? They’re the best!  They create a part for me when they write a script for their famous family “shows”, and teach me cool dance moves to go along with their favorite songs.  They chase me at the park, let me sit with them at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving, and share their popcorn with me when we’re watching movies.

For the first time in my life, I know what a family is.  They are the people with whom we celebrate holidays, exchange presents, send pictures, and make travel plans.  They are the ones with whom we play rowdy games, worship, cry, and laugh.  They are the ones who came to help take care of me when Mama got sick.  The ones who pray for me. 

What a blessing it is to be able to provide children with their first experience being a part of a family!  Not that any family is perfect, of course.  We all have our idiosyncrasies and occasional disagreements.  But even sporadic struggles can be an opportunity for a child to learn.  Every discussion, difference of opinion, moment of heated debate is being witnessed by little eyes who are trying to understand the world around them.  Who are figuring out how to resolve conflict in a positive, constructive way.

By very definition, a foster child will eventually leave.  Whether it is after a few months or several years, whether it’s to return to a parent, to live with a relative, to be adopted, or to live on their own as after he “ages out” of the system – the time will come when he will no longer be a part of my family.  It’s tempting to say, “Why do this?  It’s too hard to let them go!”  But then I ask myself, “Would I really deprive a child the opportunity to experience a loving family in order to protect my own emotions?”

Yes, that little one will most likely leave, and indeed it is every bit as difficult and heart-breaking as people imagine it to be! However, in the midst of my loss and grief when a child leaves, I try to remember that I have planted little seeds in that child’s heart.  And some day, years from now, when he or she is grown and ready to become a parent, perhaps the memories of the time with my family will resurface.  Relationships will be strong.  Roles will be defined.  The seeds will take root and grow, and it will be the beginning of his very own vibrant, mighty, enduring family tree.

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