That Damn Family Unit

Family-Tree-Poster---Englis.JPGIt’s that time of year again. For Texas families with elementary-aged kids, back to school season means the obligatory curriculum on families.

My son, Waylon, is in third grade, so we’ve been around this thorny mulberry bush a few times before. But this year the path took a new turn.

“Mom,” Waylon asked, “how come some people don’t have kids?” He was hanging on the back porch door and swaying in and out of the house in a fidgety eight-year-old kind of way.

I was in the middle of draining a boiling pot of noodles into a colander, but I still wanted to provide a wide-ranging answer. It came out something like this: “Maybe-they-don’t-want-to-or-they don’t-have-the-money-or-the-support-or-the-interest. Maybe-their-pet-is-their-baby-or-their-work-or-their-art…or something else.”

“But what about carrying on the generations?” Waylon asked.

Perpetuating the ancestral line is not something we discuss much in our donor-inseminated domestic domain. As far as I am concerned, my family’s dominant genetic traits are early baldness, alcoholism, and a propensity for moles. If the Schilt line had stopped with me, the chief mourners would be rich dermatologists.

It didn’t take me long to surmise that Waylon’s preoccupation with generation was a by-product of the classroom curriculum on families.

As a teacher, I can understand why a unit on families makes sense at the beginning of the school year. Getting students to talk about their backgrounds creates opportunities to examine similarities and differences. Direct talk about differences (and similarities across differences) is one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes and create real community in a diverse setting.

A unit on families is also a way to encourage students to connect to their cultural heritage. The other day, in the middle of a play date, Waylon’s friend Jimmy solemnly asked me if I would like to hear his cultures. He listed them on his fingers:

“Hopi, Cherokee, German, Polish, Canary Islander, Spanish…oh, what’s that one, oh, oh, um…French…”

All in all, Jimmy reported eight different “bloods.” Waylon was extremely disappointed that we did not have a similarly compelling list for him. He refused to be mollified by the fact that his great great grandfather was a polygamist with two wives, because Canadian Mormonism could not be distilled into a specific bloodline.

I was happy for Waylon’s buddy because I could tell that their classroom unit on families had given him a sense of confidence and pride. Theoretically, the family curriculum could work the same way for kids from nontraditional families, including kids from LGBT homes.
In reality, however, we live in Texas.

In a state where nontraditional families are decidedly outside the official curriculum, classroom discussions about family structure can be a source of anxiety instead of pride.

jocks.jpgThe beginning of third grade has meant the dawning of a new self-consciousness for Waylon. Last year he told us, “I love being from an odd family.” This year he told us that he wasn’t going to correct kids who assumed that his genderqueer mommy was his dad.

He’s more strategic about how he comes out to other kids now. He prefers to wait until he’s established a level of comfort and trust before he tells them that he has two moms. A few weeks ago, he let us know that he was planning how to break the news to an older kid in his after-school program. When the deed was done, Waylon expressed relief. “He didn’t seem like he wanted to stop being my friend or anything.”

Luckily, Waylon has never experienced anything more malevolent than skepticism (“that’s weird”), or incredulity (“that’s impossible.”) But I suspect that will change as he gets older. And, if the school curriculum continues to feature families at the beginning of the year, I suspect it will continue to be in tension with his desire to come out about his family at his own pace.

(On a side note, if I could ask one thing from traditional families who want to be allies, it would be that you talk with your kids about all kinds of family structures – including single parents, divorced parents, gay parents, trans parents, absent parents and multigenerational families – so that little kids from nontraditional families don’t have to bear the burden of educating their peers.)

At the end of the unit on families, Waylon had to interview family members and write a paragraph about his family heritage. I tried to suggest a few questions, but – as usual – Waylon had his own agenda for inquiry.

“Where did I get my blonde hair?” he asked. It was a logical kind of “where did I come from” question, because neither Katy nor I are natural blondes.

“I think you got your blonde hair from your grandfather,” I replied. “Or maybe from Uncle Brian,” I added, referencing Waylon’s sperm donor. (Waylon has a dazzlingly handsome blonde donor sib.)

“But what about from Mommy’s side? What did I get from my Koonce blood?”
Back to blood again! I was torn between being factually accurate and honoring the spirit of our queer family tree.

“Well, you don’t technically have Koonce blood… but you’re definitely a Koonce!” I hastened to add.

“I know I’m a Koonce,” he retorted, as if I’d just said the most obvious thing in the world. “And I do have Koonce blood in me.”

“Oh really,” I said cautiously, “tell me about that.”

“When you and Mommy kissed, some of her blood got inside you. And then it got inside of me when you made me.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling thoroughly enlightened and instructed.

Third grade is definitely a turning point. I remember it as the year I looked up every single cuss word in the dictionary. The year I learned what “virgin” meant and realized that I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. It was also the last year I really believed in Santa Claus.

Maybe it’s wrong, but I hope he’ll keep believing in his own magical version of his family “blood” for just a little while longer.

(Poster image from the LGBTQ Parenting Connection. They have a whole host of inclusive alternatives to typical family tree assignments. Check it out.)


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