Aiming High — Against the Odds
The phone rang Sunday morning, as I scrambled around hunting shoes for five sets of little feet. My 7-year-old's Sunday School teacher wanted a family photo for her lesson on family togetherness. “Sure,” I offered, in my got-it-all-together voice. She didn't know she was asking the impossible, and I wasn't about to explain it to her.
You see, there is no picture of my children's entire family. Their dad and I split up just months before their baby brother was born. So we had a portrait of an intact family, minus baby, and a shot of all the kids and mom, minus dad. Neither photo was good enough for a 7-year-old, torn apart by her love for both her parents, her longing for everyone to be together again, and the inexorable unraveling of her home.
I ended up sending two photos with her, and she tripped off wearing a smile that didn't hint at her broken heart. But I see ample signs of the pain that hides behind the cheerful face she and her siblings show the world. Chronic nightmares, unexpected melt-downs, explosions of temper, and labored breathing all give daily evidence of my children's struggle with their parents' breakup. And so I cringed when the Sunday School teacher told me the lesson was on families.
At times like that, I almost wish I could shelter us from the public celebration of intact family life. So I understand the longing to disenthrone the ideal of the traditional family that increasingly surfaces in our societal debates. It’s born of quiet anguish over broken dreams and promises. It’s poignant and potent. And it makes for bad public policy.
What our children need is not for their parents’ generation to try and assuage their feelings by falsely equalizing the status of all family forms. Rather, they need to be sheltered from the well-meaning spin doctors who would normalize our nightmare, who would persuade us to look no higher than our life as we know it now.
“People fall out of love because they change,” says a popular children's book. “Divorce is normal.”
Is that supposed to be comforting? Teach my children that, and they'll think divorce is inevitable. When it's their turn, they'll bail out of marriage at the first crisis, if they marry at all. They’ll slip in and out of relationships, torn between their desperate need to really matter to someone, and their inability to fully invest themselves in a relationship they know will eventually fall apart. And the pain they feel now will pale in comparison with the pain they pass on to their children.
Far better, I think, to acknowledge my children’s anguish today and admit their right to it. Their world has turned upside down, but at least I can confirm their sense of what is right-side up. And reassure them that marriage is supposed to last, even though their parents' didn’t. Hurt as it sometimes does to watch devoted married couples serving each other and their children, those are the models I want to provide for my kids. They may have to live with single-parenthood, but they don't have to identify with it. So I grit my teeth and applaud those Sunday School lessons about families. We may weep over our lost happily-ever-after, but we won't give up on our dreams.
Somehow, we'll find a way to celebrate the ideal in our far-from-ideal home. My kids have been defrauded of their dad. But my grandchildren don't have to be. Not if we who still believe in the family together plant the seeds of stability for all our children.