Not all of us are lucky enough to immerse ourselves into the bosom of blood relations who love us. And the feelings of loss and lack are especially felt during family holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
My husband, Herb, and I spent twelve days in Springfield, Massachusetts, with our daughter and daughter-in-law, separately, because the girls are in the process of getting a divorce. They split up in July, after just one year of marriage, and are learning how to live apart after five years of being together as a couple. The breakup is still so new that many in the extended family haven’t yet heard the news. It’s not the sort of thing that anyone finds joy in announcing. Our extended family was incredibly loving and supportive when the girls married on July 4th a year ago, embracing the first openly gay couple in our Chinese and Jewish families.
One of the best things I learned from 15+ years living in Hawaii is that we can choose to adopt our own family, made up of persons who need our love and whose love we can benefit from. Herb and I have been in the practice of creating a hanai family for the entire three decades that we have been together. It’s what we do, and who we are, as a couple. There have been ex-secretaries escaping abusive marriages, Vietnam vets escaping personal demons, undocumented aliens seeking better lives for their families, and more. A hanai family is one that you choose, and foster and love into being, and it is any shape that you create it to be, where the bonds are bonds of love and choice, and desire to be together in mutual love and support.
When our daughter and daughter-in-law first got together, we met a young woman, only a few months younger than our daughter, who had been expelled from her family shortly after high school graduation, when she was inadvertently outed, for being gay. She’d been living by her wits and whatever kindnesses people were willing to extend to her in the interim. Her family of birth consisted of divorces, alcohol and drug abuse, and so many lies that it was difficult for any of her family to distinguish truth from lies anymore. And for her family of birth, judgmental and irrational attitudes trumped love, with the exception of one grandmother, who has since passed away.
We found in our daughter-in-law, just as our daughter found in her, a delightful young woman full of gifts and potential and an indomitable will to survive and do well; she only needed a family who believed in her and who were willing to be a supportive, present, loving and embracing family. We became that family for her, and we promised her, with our daughter’s concurrence and support, that we would be her family even if the girls broke up and were no longer in a relationship. That day has arrived.
Being loving and supportive is easy in the context of ourselves being an intact, wholesome and loving family that isn’t currently facing a lot of stressors like terminal illness, financial instability or bad behavior within the family. We are blessed, and we know it. We rely on our faith, and we rely on each other. But, and it’s a big “but,” maintaining family relationships in the context of a divorce and in the context of societal norms is not easy, because it’s not the norm and what’s expected.
Figuring out how to split one’s time between two households for things like a holiday meal is actually relatively simple. You negotiate what’s convenient for everyone. Figuring out how to tell each girl that you love her for who she is, and that your love for the other girl doesn’t diminish your love for her, is much harder, because it’s not just your feelings, thoughts and actions that you must account for. You also have to account for each girl’s feelings and thoughts. And as much as each girl wants to be her best self, expressing love even when she’s also expressing independence and separation from the other spouse, they can’t help but feel the pain of loss and all the things done and said that are now so much water under the bridge.
I wonder, a bit, if this isn’t something of what families with adopted children might encounter occasionally. I do not say that to denigrate or in any way take away from adoptive families, whom I admire deeply and profoundly. We are a form of adoptive family as a hanai family, having chosen to incorporate others who weren’t born or married into our family as part of our family, with access to love, support, and inclusion in birthday and holiday celebrations and all the other activities that families do together as family.
This holiday season, as I read my Facebook feed and see, again, my young friends who are estranged from their actual parents and families, I want to reassure them that they can have the family that they’ve dreamt of. It’s theirs to choose, to form and foster, in the configuration and shape that will meet their needs and buoy their dreams. And, if they choose, I am willing to be included, as a hanai mom or hanai sister or hanai Godmother. They can take their pick, and I will be there, online or in person, to cheer their joys and successes, to soothe their hurts and losses, and to lend strength to their journeys so that they know they’re not alone, not separate, but a part of a hanai family.