This is an article I wrote in 2007 that I feel impelled to share after I saw a friend tweet something about “broken” families. I’ve never been comfortable with that term. I think it assumes too much. Here’s my take on it. Please feel free to pass it on.
During a recent parent get-together, I realized that the modern world has really changed the constellation of families. There are a lot more complex family situations than there are “normal” ones. Which brought me to the question, “what is normal anyway”? Father, mother and children living under one roof doesn’t guarantee normal and normal doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.
Today there are many single-parent homes, not just because the modern Filipina is more independent, stronger, and less inclined to suffer the transgressions of her husband, but because one or the other spouse has gone abroad to work. Children are growing up with a different sense of family, what with fathers having to mother their children and mothers having to double up as dad as well.
If we simply look at the picture and add into the formula our ideas and mainstream definitions of “normal”, we would immediately conclude that the Filipino family is headed for disaster. But it doesn’t have to be. There is much hope to be found on the other side. Other family members are stepping in. Estranged couples are now more willing to deal with each other with respect and love despite their obvious differences. They bring their current partners into the picture, creating a new web of parenting and friendship that is borne of acceptance and maturity. The whole family learns a whole new way to love. It is not without its difficulties, but I find a tremendous opportunity for humanity there.
Today, children are experiencing deep levels of love and nurturing from people who are not related to them by blood. Blood-love is automatic and expected. Nature takes care of that. But love that is consciously bestowed upon another human being with whom one is not blood-related—that is a gift of unfathomable value. That is the foundation of true brotherhood.
Of course this doesn’t just happen. Things can certainly go awry and the worst possible outcome for the children can still happen, but adults who are willing to take the broader view can make such family situations harbingers of hope rather than despair.
In the past, divorced couples behaved abhorrently towards each other, dragging the children into the fray and causing irreparable emotional wounds in the family. Today, more conscious adults are taking stock and deciding there is a better way to do things. More and more divorced couples are choosing to be friends and their children are faring better. A gifted child psychologist told me that in all her years of practice, children have repeatedly said that they didn’t mind that their parents were separated, as long as they could be friends.
That is a true gut-wrenching challenge for separated couples. If they have gone as far as divorce or separation, it goes without saying that there is much pain between them. But if they are striving with all their might to find areas of understanding where they can be authentic yet kind to each other, the children learn a valuable lesson of respect and true human striving that will serve them well in their own lives and relationships. When the couples find new partners and are in stable relationships that they deem worthy of the children, the family expands.
Today, I am discovering that there is a trend towards couples being truly accepting of their former spouse’s new partner, which means less emotional strain for children who don’t have to feel disloyal about liking someone in papa’s life who is not mama, or loving someone in mama’s life who is not papa. The most famous example would be the Ashton Kutcher-Demi Moore-Bruce Willis triad. The world has seen this hyper-extended family at social gatherings and even on vacations together. Some react with horror but others are open enough to say, “Why not?” With this new consciousness, children can see that love can be expressed in many ways.
It is not easy. It is not meant to be easy. But I think complex family situations are preparing us for the kind of humanity that is coming at us from the future—the kind of humanity that necessitates nothing less than a revolution of the heart to heal our severely wounded world. All the violence, war and monstrosity we find everywhere today stem from a severely flawed view of the world and ourselves. Everything we knew before is breaking down, begging for renewal
I believe that any kind of fragmentation is a call for just that. Something that is crushed cannot be restored to its original form, but you can create something new out of it—something, at least, made stronger by the fall. The ability to hold together that which has been cracked and crushed takes tremendous strength. That strength would not have risen on its own. But not everyone chooses to see the gifts that emerge from the chaos. Indeed, this takes new vision—an ability to see with unbiased clarity.
My parents separated when I was two years old and I swore that would never happen to me or my children, but today I see that what happened to me as a child prepared me for what I needed to go through in adulthood. It is a different view of my past that I was unable to see before. The threads of life are woven way, way before our present perception, and we really do have to be willing to view current life events with an openness we may not have had before. If we limit ourselves to “socially accepted” views of the world, we deprive ourselves of the chance to see the many facets of life, each possibility as brilliant as the next.
My parents’ imperfections taught me the value of living truthfully. I’m not even sure this was a lesson they wanted me to learn, but that is definitely what I got out of our family history and it has served me well. Truth-telling and truth-living have become my personal motto. Though their separation caused deep wounds, these had more to do with the way they were towards each other afterwards, rather than the separation itself. Whatever it was, I believe I was able to make the most of our situation and, as a conscious adult at last, I am able to appreciate its gifts.
Couples whose jobs cause them to live apart have to deal with their own set of issues. Yet, I have seen communities rally around these families and give them support. I have seen individuals volunteer their time to give the custodial parent space to breathe, and to provide the children with a different kind of adult influence and input. Again, much depends on the consciousness of the parents who choose to give their children something new and seemingly out of norm, but will enrich their children’s life in unexpected ways.
The positive aspects of complex family situations are revealed only when we study them with an open heart and mind. If we focus on what should be rather than what is, we always fall short. If we look at what isn’t there and not at everything or everyone else there, we will see only what is missing. But if we look at these situations and acknowledge that present circumstances can bring grace rather than disgrace, there is much to see. The view can be almost dazzling.
When I was little, a child asked me if it’s true that my family was “broken” and of course I said it wasn’t. My family was never broken, it was just different. Just like any other family today with its own special constellation, mine had its share of heartache and joy. But it was a family just like any other, with its own set of unique challenges.
No matter how hard we hope and try to have our families be like the television families of the fifties and sixties, life happens. It has its own ingenious design. If you haven’t already noticed, it does not come in a tidy box. Life is pretty messy. It is really up to us to see the beauty in the chaos.
Our families are taking on a different shape. To make the most of these complex situations, we have to step out of our limited view of what ought to be. We have to accept that the world is changing and our families along with it. So stop calling it broken. Stop whispering about it. Today’s modern family can show us just how wide and deep love can grow.