Our family is not what you might think of as “traditional.” We don’t exactly fit the typical image or idea of a family. That’s not to say that we look down on tradition or try to look like the Addams Family (although Gomez and do I share a love of three-piece suits!), but we look, well, different. That’s because our daughter happens to be only 10 years younger than me, and nine years younger than my wife, which gets some odd reactions. But our experience as a family has helped us to learn that sometimes family is something you choose.
A couple of years into our marriage, my wife and I decided to start serving in our local church. We helped with the middle school youth group, which is where we met Elizabeth and Jonathan, bright-eyed 11-year-old twins who were being cared for by a foster family. They had experienced a rough upbringing and had been removed from their birth mother when they were eight; their birth father had never been in the picture.
We started to spend more time with the twins at church, and then out of church, as well. We took them out to eat, went hiking—all the things that we thought cool, young couples like us were supposed to do to reach out to at-risk youth. We had known them for about four years, when Elizabeth confided in a friend at church that the foster couple who was caring for them was abusive.
The church leadership immediately called us, knowing that we had a relationship with Elizabeth and Jonathan. And in less than 30 seconds, my wife and I decided that we would adopt them if we could. We met with Social Services and expressed our desire to take Elizabeth and Jonathan into our home and eventually adopt them. For their part, the twins were thrilled. Social Services approved us for temporary emergency custody during the police investigation. When arrests were eventually made as a result of the abuse allegations, we knew that we were not going to lose Elizabeth and Jonathan back to the foster home.
This was a big change for our home. My wife and I were still newlyweds and suddenly brand new parents of then 15-year-old twins. It was equally scary and exciting.
Just three days later, we found out that my wife was pregnant! Much to our surprise, our new son’s birth was a bonding experience for all of us, especially for Elizabeth, who spent hours with him. She later confided in me that she understood what it was like to have bad family, and she wanted to make sure that she chose to be a good sister.
“Choosing” became the unspoken motto of our family. Biology did not matter near as much as choice. My wife and I worked hard to reassure the twins that we saw no distinction between them and their little brother. But while Elizabeth remained happy to be in a loving family, Jonathan started to pull away. I tried my best to reassure him that he had a family now—that he was my son, and I was his dad, forever. I was determined to provide the stability that he had never before experienced.
But when the twins turned 18, Jonathan broke our hearts when he announced he was leaving. Not just leaving in a normal, “striking out into the world sense,” but leaving our family—forever.
He told us we had basically been a hotel and that he would rather go back to the foster home where he could do what he wanted, and exchange his silence for expensive gifts. We were devastated. Elizabeth was hurt the most. Through all of their past together, she always had Jonathan with her. He was the only one that had been there for her from birth.
To be honest, those were dark days in our home. I don’t know how long it lasted, but I know how it ended. We had to take Elizabeth’s example again. We chose to be a family. We had been through one of the toughest losses of our lives, but we chose to go through it together. I realize now that Elizabeth agreeing to be part of our family was as important as us choosing to be her family. We have discovered that no matter what we go through, choosing to go through it together is what family is all about.