A few year ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Why I Don’t Have Children… Yet.” Well, it’s long overdue to update that post. Now before you start congratulating me on a pregnancy or adoption, you may want to read a bit further. The children in my life now, are neither children, or mine in any biological or legal sense. In fact, what connects us and brought us together in a unique family dynamic is that we were estranged biological cousins – having only connected just a few short years ago. I am significantly older than my three cousins. In fact, their mother (my aunt) and I were only six years apart in age.
Prior to reconnecting with “the girls” (as hubby and I refer them), I had only met the eldest of these cousins when I was 18 – almost two decades earlier. It may seem unusual for some families to have such distance between relatives, but it seemed to be the norm in my family growing up.
On my mom’s side, there was little love lost between the siblings (my mom, and her brother and sisters). Developing relationships with my cousins was extremely challenging growing up because of all the bickering and stubbornness from the authority figures in our lives. Yep, I’ll say it here, and I will probably get some grief for it, but keeping the cousins from each other because of adult pettiness was extremely selfish. I’m not sure why we were forced to live with the sins of our parents, but that’s how it was. In some ways, it’s still like that. We have a very fractured family. It’s never been cohesive, save for perhaps a few short months before my Nanny passed away.
I hadn’t seen my Nanny in 15 years when she showed up at my mom’s door to tell her that she had terminal pancreatic cancer. She only had six months to live and wanted to get to know her grandchildren, and reconnect with her daughter. Nanny lived for two years and during that time I got to know her, and I also began to realize how much I’d been robbed of growing up. One of our funniest exchanges was when she saw me for the first time after all those years. I was an angry teen goth girl, and I wore the clothes and make-up to prove it. Nanny looked at me and said, “I guess those pink sweaters with the kittens on them that I’ve been sending you for Christmas over the years wasn’t a good choice.”
So, for a brief time there, Nanny brought us all back together. Of course, it took a tragedy for us to start acting more like a family, but that’s how it was for my maternal relations. Shortly, after my Nanny died, the bickering and hostility started again. Nanny’s death was followed by my Gramps’ passing, which again brought the family together for a brief period. Following my Gramps’ death we lost one more family member, my youngest aunt and “the girls’” mother. She was 34 when she passed away from ovarian cancer.
This is where I’ll confess now. I did not attend my Gramps’ memorial, nor did I attend my aunt’s. There were monetary factors that made it difficult to travel at those times, but I also didn’t want to be there to witness yet another family funeral gathering. It was the only time I saw that side of my family, and I was just done. In fact, my mother wasn’t even speaking to her youngest sister when she passed away. I also was pretty bitter about Gramps’ death. I wasn’t going to sit around and watch people shedding crocodile tears for a man they barely visited. My biological family were practically strangers to me.
Now don’t feel too bad for me. I was blessed with an amazing step-family while growing up. I have the best Dad I could ever ask for, and he’s not my Dad because he has to be or because we share genes. He’s my Dad because he wants to be. He chose me and my brothers. To me, that is very special. In addition to my Dad, I have amazing aunts and uncles, and cousins that I share no biological relation with, but we have a very deep familial connection. They have been my family for as long as I can remember, and even after my Mom and Dad went through a very messy divorce, they were still there for me and my brothers. They were still my family.
In the last ten years, I’ve had the pleasure of finally getting to know my biological maternal cousins. I do not know my paternal side, but that’s another story, for another day. It took awhile to get us all together, but it finally happened one summer day. We finally all came together in one spot, not for a funeral, but for a celebration. It was an amazing day. Now that we’re all older, we don’t have to concern ourselves with whatever issues might be going on with our parents. We can choose to keep in touch and get to know each other, and for the most part, we have.
While getting to know my deceased aunt’s girls, I learned of some very tragic history and personal struggles. You see, shortly after my aunt passed away, “the girls” began having less and less contact with their mother’s side of the family. When family did inquire about seeing them, they were denied. Very few of us in the family had any clue about how they were growing up following their mother’s passing. Now, I won’t go into details about their upbringing because that is their story to tell, not mine, but I do want to address some of the concerns that some people have with our relationship with “the girls”.
Just over a year ago, the youngest of the girls moved into our home. It was the first time that hubby and I had ever lived with anyone else, so it was definitely a new experience. At first, we also thought that this sixteen-year-old who had already been living on her own for a couple years, wouldn’t want or need any parenting from us. We quickly discovered that she, and her sisters, were craving parental connections. Sure, their father was still alive, but he wasn’t, and still isn’t, very involved in their lives. There was no love lost between them and their step-mother, who I was told moved into the girls’ family home with her kids only a few short months after their mom passed away.
Yes, indeed, the girls were looking for someone they could confide in, come to for advice, or get a hug. They were looking for unconditional love and we found ourselves naturally falling into a parenting role with the girls. Of course, the girls aren’t little girls anymore. They are teenagers and young adults, but even they want that sense of security and love just like anyone else. Why should they be denied that?
Some people have been quick to judge, but we pay them no attention. You see, some people don’t understand what it’s like to have unconditional love for someone that isn’t necessarily your child. Hubby and I were lucky though, because we both are blessed with unconditional love from parents that we share no genetics connection too. My Dad taught me what unconditional love of a parent means, and I intend to carry forward his legacy.
Sure, it’s not always easy being a surrogate parent to the girls, but that’s because they have some serious history tagging along in their journey. A-a-a-n-d, let’s face it, they hadn’t experienced our brand of parenting before, so it has been something we’ve had to work on as a family unit. In fact, the youngest who moved in with us, spent the first few months worried that we were mad at her all the time, waiting for us to yell at her, and never ever eating the last of something in the fridge. She also described me as “mean,” not because I raised my voice, but because I told her things she didn’t want to hear and challenged her perceptions. She was also always trying to pick at fight with me… even if she didn’t realize she was doing it.
It was only after hubby and I started getting closer to the middle child, that we realized that challenging female authority was ingrained in them. I am not even sure if I have talked fully with them about this, but it was very evident to hubby and I. All we could assume, was that it was a pattern of behaviour developed in childhood from trying to save their father from a wicked step-mother (their description of their step mother is totally NSFW, so I won’t be repeating it here). Their father was the victim that they always had to save, despite the fact that he was also a perpetrator too. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense in the worldview of children who lost their mother at a very young age. Losing one parent is awful enough, but losing both? They weren’t going to let that happen.
As time went on, and the girls got older, the gradually started leaving their family home. The eldest left when she turned 18, while the two youngest were both out in their tweens and early teens. Their relationship with their father has become more distant as time has moved forward. There were many evenings when the youngest girl was in hubby’s arms crying because her father had stood her up, yet again.
We really tried to stay at arm’s length because we didn’t want drama from my biological family. We tried, we really did. But there’s something about watching a young person struggle with things that she shouldn’t and be virtually abandoned by her only surviving parent. It just didn’t sit well with us, so we opened our home and hearts. We have never pushed the girls for a relationship, we just try to make ourselves consistently present for them. We try to encourage them to become the best versions of themselves that they can. We support their goals and aspirations, and cheer them on when they reach those goals. And we never stop loving them, nor do we cast them aside when they screw up. We talk to them, and make it clear that they are responsible for their actions. We encourage them to make amends, and communicate openly about their feelings.
So, that’s what we try to do for them. They probably don’t know what they do for us, but they have had a profound effect on our life. We always want to know what and how they are doing (almost obsessively). They give us a sense of pride and joy when they accomplish something really great. Sometimes, they do something that disappoints us, but that just challenges us to help them learn and grow from the experience. We grow from that experience, too. When we’re out shopping, they are always on on minds. Often, one of us picks up an item and declares that one of the girls would love this! We spoil them on occasion and we also tell them no, too. That teaches us how to be more kind, and stronger, so that we can better people for them. We try to be as honest as possible with them, without setting off any emotional alarms… that’s not always easy, so hubby and I have to self-reflect a lot. We miss them when we haven’t seen them in a couple days, and we’re worried when they don’t respond to our texts in a timely manner. The girls have, very simply, made our life more complete.
This relationship between us and the girls wasn’t planned. It just happened naturally, or perhaps with some intervention from the beyond (if you believe in that sort of stuff). I don’t know what the future holds for all of us, but I do know, that if they’ll have us, we’ll be there for the journey, cheering them on… and picking them up when they fall.