we are family
by JoELLEN COLLINS
… the reality
is that we are no longer in a world where a child would automatically
envision a nuclear family as the norm.
When I was
9 years old, my best friend Jeannette and I built two dollhouses out of
old orange crates. We furnished them with carpet scraps, some toy
furniture, and our own handmade items. The first time I ever tried to
quilt was in making bedding for the tiny four-poster in my crate's master
bedroom. By today's standards of elegant Victorian or Cape Cod dollhouses,
ours were primitive, but they provided hours of play and fodder for our
crowning moment in designing our tiny domiciles was when we put imaginary
people in them. Each of us had a small and perfect family for our
masterpieces: a Mommy and Daddy and two children, a big brother and
younger sister. We did not think anything unusual about our ideal fake
family. The four together sat down at meals composed of little turkeys and
one-inch pies served on wee tin plates passing for pewter. The nuclear
family was, in the middle of the 20th century, of course, the norm. None
of us, before television would introduce us to the larger world, knew much
about homeless children, abandoned orphans or, for that matter,
single-parent households. I do not recall any of my friends who didn't
have both a mother and father at home. Only one of my high school buddies
was from a divorced home
By the time
my children were born, family life as I had perceived it was already
changing. Not only did they have several friends who experienced the
wrenching trauma of seeing their parents divorced, but they, too, much to
my shame, experienced it. I remember noticing the drawings their
classmates made of families gathered around a table. Often, they consisted
of only one parent, and one particularly moving image had the daddy far at
the top of the page, in heavenly remove. Yes, my daughters' generation
knew first hand the altered reality of family held for so long by
progeny will experience an even greater change. The rise of single parent
households has been well documented. Many women now choose to bear or
adopt children without benefit of a live-in father. Same-sex households
are being given greater access to procreation through surrogacy or
in-vitro fertilization or, in the case of male pairs, adoption. Recently
Rosie O'Donnell featured families of same-sex unions who are grappling
with laws that allow them to be foster parents but not adoptive parents.
Although laws vary from state to state, many couples are struggling with
making homes for previously unwanted children who have been homeless.
supports the multitudinous permutations of combinations comprising
contemporary families or not, the reality is that we are no longer in a
world where a child would automatically envision a nuclear family as the
to Rosie's special, two recent television features stimulated my
examination of the concept of family. One was about the children
transported from England to Australia in a resettlement effort to populate
that country with more Anglo blood. Many of the hundreds of deportees had
families who had merely temporarily signed them away, intending to return
when they could afford them. Nonetheless, children were taken from
institutions in England and put into institutions in Australia. Many of
those children never found a home and spent desperately unhappy and
abusive childhoods. They craved a family.
country, for many decades until the 1930s, abandoned children were taken
from the streets of New York and sent on what became known as the Orphan
Train to potential homes in the Midwest. This was a well-meaning attempt
to rescue those most vulnerable to the rigors of a horrible existence on
the streets. Many found foster or adoptive homes, but many suffered the
trauma of being examined at one stop, rejected, and then sent on to the
next and the next. Those unchosen children forever craved a family.
there are "adoption fairs" wherein prospective parents can look
at children in the context of a large setting. While this may be a valid
approach to matching children with possible parents, I wonder at the
dismay of those less cute or "adoptable." Potential daughters
and sons, whether or not they fit the expected profile, crave family.
homes don't always offer the best long-term care, though many are
excellent. My sister, adopted by our family at 17, had been shuttled
between foster families who often ignored her needs. Her high school
English teacher called my parents and told them of the bright young girl
who was coming barefoot to class because she had no money for shoes.
Although this occurred in San Francisco in the middle of the last century,
some of those abuses still continue.
So, what do
we do? We live in a time when many childless people want to parent, and
yet babies who fit the "ideal" are rare. When there are so many
older children who are waiting to be placed, perhaps we need to expand our
acceptance of the concept of valid families. I imagine most of the former
Australian émigrés, the children of the Orphan Train, and any child
today who is in an institution waiting for adoption would gladly reside
with someone who loved him, whether single, gay or of a different color.
families, nuclear or not, awaiting creation.