What makes a family? For many people this question doesn’t ever need asking, but for those of us who have assembled a family through adoption it is a relevant one. So many things do not make our families. They are clearly not made by a shared genetic heritage. I am no more biologically related to my children, than I am my husband. There are many aspects of our own experiences of being parented which we cannot hand down either and so we have had to learn new ways of parenting. But nevertheless, the Donovans, the four of us, are a strong family unit.
Our esteemed Social Worker, Mr R who has helped us through some tricky times, recently talked to us about family traditions, ‘you know’ he said, ‘the sorts of things that are particular to your family, little phrases, particular names for things, days which are marked in special ways’. He described these family oddities as the glue which sticks and binds and is the starting culture of a shared heritage.
Of course, when put on the spot for something like this, the mind goes blank. (It is like being asked what your favourite books or albums are and inexplicably your brain is only able to access the late 1980s – ‘yes I very much enjoy The Bone People and kd Lang). So to Mr R, Rob and I both looked as though we lacked the imagination to create even the flimsiest of traditions. The obvious family traditions are woven into the Big Days such as birthdays and (breathe out first) Christmas. But for many adoptive families, the Big Days are littered with landmines, which are exploded by the trip wires of vague memories, broken attachments and shame. So for our families, more than most, our traditions have to be rooted in the every day, the mundane and also the bizarre.
Here are a selection of some of my favourite Donovan family traditions:
- the person who creeps downstairs early in the morning and eats biscuits and cake decorations is known as ‘the cupboard fairy’, we all know her human form, but we do not speak her name, for she knows who she is
- the cloth which removed all signs of food around tiny mouths after mealtimes was affectionately known as ‘the magic flannel’, it has gone out of use, but it’s memory continues
- ‘I’m Thinking About My Doorbell. When You Gonna Ring It? When You Gonna Ring It?’ by the White Stripes is the family anthem, we all know the words and can air drum along to it, the little Donovans are yet to understand the true meaning of the lyrics
- we have our own Donovan family ranking system for swear words which starts with ‘arse’ and ends with, well, a word which came up when whilst we were reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the eldest Donovan child, which I shall leave for you dear readers to deduce.
And all these strange terms and quirky little songs and the memories which they hold, all play their part in giving us a shared language with which we can celebrate the good times.