April 14, 2013

Motherlode: Sharing family stories helps us find the happy endings

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

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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:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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