I’ve been thinking hard about family stories.
Family stories are exactly what they sound like. They’re stories of our family history — how we got here, who came before us and what mattered along the way. They’re stories of our recent family past, little legends that define us and highlight what’s important. And they’re stories about our family present: This is why we do what we do, this is what’s important to us.
In his new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” and in his recent “This Life” column for the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, “The Stories That Bind Us,” my colleague and friend Bruce Feiler described the way telling family stories matters to our children. He brought up a recent study, in which psychologists asked children a battery of questions about their history, ranging from “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” to “Do you know the story of your birth?” The conclusion:
The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
That’s dramatic. Is it any wonder that I’ve been trying to tell more family stories in the weeks since I read Bruce’s book? Presumably, I’m not the only one — his article stayed on the “Most E-Mailed” list for days. Telling family stories seems like both a simple and wonderful way to strengthen children and families, and one without a downside. What harm could there be in telling family stories?
Our problem is that some of our family stories are hard for one of our children to hear.
We adopted my youngest daughter from China when she was nearly 4. Before she lived with us, she lived happily with her foster parents there, and we are fortunate enough to know them and to know the details of her history. We know our experience of the day she joined our family, and we know what she has told us about what she experienced on that same day. Those are our family stories.
But while for three of our children, they’re joyful stories worthy of constant retelling, for our youngest daughter, those are complex stories of loss and eventual gain; of leaving a family she did not want to leave and gaining a family she did not much want at the time. Her love for us now only makes it more complicated.
Other stories are hard for her to hear as well: the stories of our family history after she was born but before she was part of our family. And so many of the phrases that go with these stories — the things that “run in our family” or the ways someone is “just like Grandpa” — are loaded in adoptive families. We say them just the same, and distribute them equally (nurture counts).
We’re far from the only family, or even the only “kind” of family, with difficult stories. Death, divorce, illness, remarriage, moving — as our families evolve, our histories form, and that evolution can mean that even happy stories about something that will never be the same can be hard to share.
I’m thinking about adoption, and so I chose to consult Dr. Jane Aronson, one of the foremost practitioners of adoption medicine, who has advised thousands of adoptive families over the years. Aronson has been working on her book “Carried in Our Hearts” (available in April), a tribute to the families she has worked with over the years. Because the book includes dozens of first-person accounts from parents and children, Aronson has been thinking a lot about family stories of late, too. Here is her advice to me, summed up in a single phrase:
When stories are difficult, tell them anyway.
Tell them with as much humor and openness as you can, she said. “Children deserve to be playful about who they are,” she said, “and to be proud, and to interpret their own stories into their own ideas.”
And if a story brings up strong emotions for a child, let it. “Ask yourself if you’re the one who is uncomfortable,” she told me, and if I am, I need to either address it, or hide it, and let the children tell their stories.
I want my children to know that a story can be happy and sad at the same time, and maybe that’s exactly what the best stories are. We don’t even always have to feel the same way about our stories.
One night, my younger daughter might be thrilled to talk about her foster family at dinner, and might even want to describe, again, the moment when she was handed over to strangers. At another time the introduction of the same topic by a sibling telling some other version of that time might bother her (and “bother” doesn’t fully encompass the available range of emotional reactions).
Aronson told me, essentially, not to run away from those moments but to run toward them — not in order to push my daughter to tell her own stories when she doesn’t want to, but to make sure that those stories don’t become too scary to tell.
Sometimes, it takes courage to share stories. I think about widowed parents telling stories about lost partners to their children, or about grandparents telling stories of poverty, or children telling stories of bullying; I think about my younger daughter telling her stories. There may be some stories that are never publicly told, but as families, we are the keepers of one another’s stories, no matter how brutal they are. We have to find our own ways to tell them.
Often, we eventually recast stories in a different light. As Bruce said, “When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship” (and he is no stranger to difficult stories). But we have to share those stories to see them change.
Not every story has to start happy. It’s telling them that helps us find our happy endings.
Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: