The Fabricated Family

A guest post by Elizabeth Howard.

So what does a FAMILY have to do with creativity? I’m going to take you there, so hang on.

WARNING: if you are a single female, you may find this post uncomfortable and irrelevant. However, since I used to be you, Possible-Future-You would like you to know: it may seem irrelevant today, but this story could definitely come in handy in the not far future.

So my husband and I are the sort of people that make other people say things like: GASP!! YOU ADOPTED FOUR KIDS ALL AT ONCE?! Yes. We did.

People who don’t know me think I am Wonder Mom (NOT!). People who know me think: a dreamer like her having all those kids? Hmmm… People with kids find this amazing/astonishing. People/potential friends without kids evaporate when they hear it.

Yeah, that’s what we are doing. We handmade our family. Unintentionally, we supported our social values when we “had” our kids: we obtained them from the wonderful, available resources in our state foster care system.

Family building, in this way, was quilt building: a patchwork of heartache and disappointment, surprise and commitment. The outcome revealed what happens when Colin and I said “YES” to the family we REALLY wanted, despite all setbacks.

Important note: Ladies, your ovaries are the ultimate Egg Timer. I found that out when I was 34 and mine DINGED! Done. No more. The long-faced doctor informed me, as I numbed with shock, that there is NOT an unlimited supply and mine had run out. Early, though it may be.

Why? How could this happen? My entire big Catholic family had scads of children scampering everywhere. What had I done wrong?

Who the hell knows? Not me, not the medical community. Not Google. Maybe genetics, maybe too much meat crammed with hormones, maybe prescription meds I’d been taking. What was the diff? At the ripe old age of 35, I was BARREN!!! Try THAT one on sometime.

So, like everything else we’d done so far, my husband and I took the maddest journey we could. Not quite on purpose, but it turned out that way. Adoption (even foster care) isn’t that crazy. But the thing is: we both wanted a BIG family. Rowdy siblings arguing and wrestling each other, like we’d both had.

Still, by the time we’d traversed the fertility treatment pathways, tumbled down the egg donor slide, and popped out into Adoptionland, Colin was 41 and I was 38.

I mean, we are pretty fit, but we’d rather NOT chase our youngest from a walker with tennis balls. So we decided to pursue adopting a sibling group. And the only reasonable way to do that was through foster care.

The adoption expert told us that lots of parents like to adopt from overseas because they perceive that the kids will come baggage-free. With domestic adoption, parents often fear the Other Family will be an ongoing entanglement.

“Baggage-free” is a farce, of course. Whether physically or emotionally, the Other Family is always a part of any adopted child’s psyche. When you adopt, a child is like a painting on canvas. You take them and, of course, paint your own family experience over their previous one. Years later, it’s hard to access that story beneath, and it often gets hidden away. Yet, it is always there.

For me, taking kids from the foster care system, in part, meant “saving” them … who doesn’t know of kids who just get lost to drugs or crime, neglected, untethered and undereducated? That was one good reason to do it. Also, Colin and I both dug the idea of being able to meet and maybe even talk to our kids before they came to live with us.

Crafting a family from neglected kids and two inexperienced parents was the ultimate communal creative process.
We were inundated and could not be a “tight-knit” island. We needed help, so our experience with the kids became a collage.

Our minister went shopping for underwear and pajamas for them the first day they arrived. Our groggy piano player buddy came over at 7 a.m. to just be an extra pair of hands.

We hired a part-time nanny/mom-helper: she ended up teaching Colin and I as much as she taught the kids. A woodworker friend we knew made us a kids table as a gift. It created one of the best spaces in the house for the kids to gather to color/cut/glue/express themselves, and feel home.

As for Colin and I, we had to design the rules of engagement. We drew up the architecture of a week and knitted reward systems that would develop confidence and help the kids attach. Colin and I went from “what are we going to eat tonight?” pondered around 4 p.m., to creating a file-card meal planning system. Instead of panicking nightly and scrounging, we used weekends for our small-army-sized weekly grocery shopping and meal prep.

Our house went from toy-and-clothes rubble pile in the early weeks, slowly, to simple organized chaos. Walls filled with artwork, cubbies filled with crayons and markers. Laundry moved up and down the stairs in shifts, from hamper to laundry basket and back again. Summer clothes. Winter clothes. Outgrown clothes. All needed to be processed, folded, packed and moved in cycles around the house.

In one year, Colin and I went from martini-swilling DINKS to uber-parents.

We sketched the life before us using memories of our own childhoods – sandboxes, carnivals, baseball, swings, swimming, snowforts, camping. We painted them in with our own life experiences– world travel, social justice, organic gardening, building with our hands. Together we spent a long hard year in the deep, meaningful creative process of making Our New World, for ourselves and for our New Kids.

At “Letters from a Small State” and “The Least Weird Person I Know,” writer Elizabeth Howard examines how we survive and occasionally thrive in America, through the lens of our smallest details. A writer and poet living in Connecticut with her new family, she works daily in her own slivers of creative space and time.

{image credit: REST tea towel by inklore available at supermarket}

16 thoughts on “The Fabricated Family

  1. Elizabeth –
    As someone who has also been told at age 34 that I may never have children due to diminished ovarian reserve, I want to say thank you for this wonderful and heartwarming article. My husband and I have been agonizing over whether or not adoption is right for us, so I find this especially relevant right now.

  2. What a fascinating read! I have the utmost respect for parents who adopt from the foster system… choosing to open their hearts to heartache and love… wow!

  3. Read and loved the entire post – but my possible “future-me” also appreciates it 😉
    I myself am soon* to be married (soon is a term yet to be defined*), but though I currently have no kids (29) I somehow find I relate to this story. Who knows how thing will turn out for my fiance/boyfriend and I but thanks so much for sharing your family story.

  4. @Kayna, I know where you are coming from. I was never particularly the maternal type and didn’t get married till 34 (we met online). But even back in my 20s I had adoption “on my mind.” I surely wasn’t thinking about doing it on my own, I just thought about and liked the idea of it. What dreams may come!

  5. My sister( Elizabeth) the writer not only writes beautiful words but lives a beautiful life. We are so proud of your creative, quiltlike family. More and more beautiful with each additional piece.

  6. As I just tweeted…you are fabulous! What an amazing family you have created by what I am sure was at times a heart wrenching experience. I am overjoyed that there are people like you and your husband in this world to dive into the foster care system and do your bit to help a system badly in need of repair. THANK YOU! And thanks for sharing your amazing story!

  7. I loved your story. I am one of 5 adopted children. 3 of my brothers were brothers before coming into our family. It was tough, but I feel we had just as much love (or more) than as any other family. I have gone on to have a family of my own, 7 kids in all, one adopted, 3 of them step children. It doesn’t matter how you form your family, it’s just about the love!

  8. Taking on 4 small children all at once isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is perfectly suited for the naive. (which we were) If we’d known how hard it was going to be, would we have done it? Probably. The upsides are incredible and can’t be repeated or replaced by any other endeavor.
    Kudos to my wife, Elizabeth, for being such a great Mom and being able to express our families journey so well.

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