A Family Is a Family by Choice

Love and choice make us parents. How you behave every minute of each day is how you know if you’re a parent.

Published in the June/July 2017 issue of Families First Monthly

My dad, Dale Sutherland, was born during the American Great Depression. In fact, my grand-mother said about my dad’s birth, “When I went to the bank to get the money for the hospital, the bank was closed.” I still remember that particular sentence from my grandmother, who spoke it directly to me. I remember because I had little one-on-one time with her since I had to share her with a few dozen grandkids all wanting another molasses cookie. It seemed to me Grandma was “A-Okay” with the bank closing—like that was the least of the trouble at that time. I did not find out until later that I was right.

My dad had three brothers and a few sisters too. We would all go see Grandma every Sunday and we cousins would eat Grandma’s grapes, play chase, and throw rocks at night at the bats while our parents would sit cramped in the living room, mostly, as I recall, listen-ing to my mom talk about women’s rights, equal rights, segregation, and all the injustices of that time. If you’ve ever spent a few minutes with my mom, Mary, you’ll know she hasn’t changed much over the years.

I remember when my dad graduated from MSU, Grandma was not really proud of him, saying, “Dale, you can get a good job at the factory making cars, why waste the time getting a degree?” And then asking, “What is a social worker anyway?”

Grandma was tough. She was sweet too, but you had to be tough to raise a bunch of kids during the Depression. They had no money, and from my chats with my uncles and aunts, the boys were “hooligans” and quite rough. I did not know until after my dad died that the guy I called Grandpa was not the gene-pool grandpa I thought he was. Grandma had just grabbed the night watchman on the farm and married him after my dad’s biological father died while Grandma was pregnant with Dad. It was the Depression, as my aunt explained, and she said that she thought it was a stupid secret I should know: Howard wasn’t my “real” grandfather.

Well, he certainly wasn’t fake to me and so this news didn’t change anything. I also found out that Uncle Tom wasn’t a “real” uncle either, but instead was my aunt’s brother. I never thought it strange that I had three grandfathers, too, as Uncle Tom’s father—the preacher who taught me how to camp and hike at night without a flashlight—was in fact not a part of the Sutherland/Waddell DNA pool.

I say all this to explain that I think my definition of family was fluid when I was young. We always had extra kids in the house, and Mom would ask, “Are you eating here?” to our friends. They of course would question, “What’s for dinner?” before responding, but we often had more than our standard eight plates around the table. So when I started thinking about why adopting seems so normal to me, the answer has to do with the fact that I do not see any kid as not “my kid.” I think that came from watching Dad.

One of Dad’s first jobs as social worker was at the Methodist Children’s Village in the Detroit area. He was the male figure for the orphaned and vulnerable boys that lived there, eight-to-a-house with a house mother. We would go play with the boys, and one day I called my dad, “Dad.” And the room went still. Rooms full of six to twelve-year-olds don’t go still often, except perhaps when someone brings cookies or a cake. A young boy walked up to my dad and said, “You have a son?” Dad nodded. He then said, “Why don’t you take me? I don’t have a dad. I can sleep with him,” pointing to me. “I don’t take up much room.”

The forty or so boys looked at my dad, waiting for the answer. I wondered if I would be getting forty new brothers. My dad said something I can’t recall now, but to the boys it must have seemed semi-plausible, and being a social worker I’m sure he knew how to “redirect” to a new game of dodgeball or something. It is funny how this boy’s question still sticks with me today, yet I can’t remember how my dad responded. Either way, Dad’s redirection worked, and we were off to being noisy, in-the-moment boys again.

Until then, it had never dawned on me that a kid could not have a dad and mom. I thought about that every time my mom would say, “GET TO BED,” and then follow me in and kiss me goodnight. Dad would come in, sit on my bed, and rub his scruffy beard against my face. He’d say he was grateful I was in his family and I made him feel lucky or something appropriate, seemingly out of a positive psychology/emotional intelligence book. I would go off to sleep, wonder-ing who tells those boys my dad plays with every day, “You’re loved,” or “You’re special,” or “I feel lucky that you’re part of my life!”

I had not thought about the Methodist Children’s Village until I was asked about adoption by some friends. It never occurred to me that perhaps playing with the boys of the Children’s Village helped make adoption seem really no different than giving birth to kids that just happen to look more like their mother and less like me. I never really thought about the “fake” uncles, cousins, aunts, and grandparents in my life until I sat down to write this article. Some of my children are adopted, and some are not, and honestly I forget which ones are which. I really don’t dwell on adoption as if my wife, Amy, and I or our children are somehow different or worse or better than anyone else. We’re just a family, a very “real” one at that.

However, no matter how you become a parent, parenting is a choice and it comes with responsibility and a lifelong commitment. While some might become biological parents by accident or worse, no one chooses the act of raising a child by accident. So as adults that choose the parenting path, it is our responsibility to learn about parenting, connection, love, healthy habits, positive psychology and all the science that surrounds parenting today. In the USA, at least, there is no excuse to not know how to parent. But egos, lazy brains and hearts, cultural BS, selective hearing, and indifference make it so many parents think merely replicating their DNA makes them a “real” parent.

Love and choice make us parents. How you behave every minute of each day is how you know if you’re a parent. It is easy to be a committed parent to a lovely sleeping baby. But real parenting is when the three-year-old dumps the bowl on the floor for the fourth time and your temperature is 104 and you are supposed to call your boss in a few minutes and your spouse is late. Real parenting is knowing what to say and how to handle it when your teenager comes home too late on Friday night. It is easy to be a parent—when it is easy. But for those other 525,599 minutes a year… parents that choose to be parents must learn the science of parenting and make a conscious choice each minute.

What choice? Well, I believe my mom and dad must have said to themselves, “How can I be the best parent today?” and then walked out to the circus we called a family. I think each night they probably prayed, “God, just keep my kids safe and my teenagers alive so they can be adults someday. And please guide me to be the best parent I can be.” Then they would have paused to add, “A real six hours of uninterrupted sleep would be nice, too.”

Paul Sutherland is married to Amy, and they practice, succeed, and fail daily at being intentional and thoughtful parents to the children in their lives. He currently lives in Uganda, in a noisy home with a lot of boys running around.

Meggen PetersenComment