It’s graduation season, and my first born is 18. My social media news feed is awash with photos of my friends’ children, many of whom I’ve known since birth or shortly after, in caps and gowns, or positioned behind podiums, delivering speeches. These follow the flood of prom pictures, which themselves arrived on the heels of college admissions acceptance letters, senior recitals, athletic play-offs, etc., etc.
Having moved away from Honolulu, where my first two children were born, and from Charleston, where my second two came into the world, I am grateful to Facebook for providing this platform on which to watch the lives of people whose daily lives we were once a part of go on, and go well. I am happy for them, genuinely and sincerely happy for them. And, as we all well know, there is a dark side to this window on the world or worlds we have known, a black mirror in which we see our own reflections distorted through the lens of comparison. Compare and despair, as the saying has it.
My eldest child, assigned male and named Gabriel at birth, who now identifies as female and goes by Sasha, did not graduate from high school. She left school after tenth grade to attend early college at Bard in Massachusetts and, after a year, left there. Since then, she has been working at a Mexican restaurant, writing music, and undertaking hormone therapy for gender transition. These have been full time jobs.
Similarly, her sixteen-year-old brother, Isaiah, has yet to make it through a grade of high school without failing one or more core courses. The last two years were spent addressing his anxiety and depression, which may or may not be evidence of bi-polar disorder, with which he was, perhaps mistakenly, diagnosed last fall, exacerbated by having moved out of state and away from his father and friends at the end of his eighth grade year. He, too, took and has been holding down a job at a pizza place, and rebuilding his social and emotional life in a new city, in a new body, the one of the young man he has become.
I don’t post pictures of them on social media much anymore. Not because they are not beautiful and not because I am not proud, but because we haven’t had many of the standard photo-ops of late. Their lives are increasingly their own, and they are immersed in them, rarely pausing to strike a pose and smile for the camera. Instead, though neither has gotten their license, they are like drivers behind the wheels of cars careening headlong in the dark: their eyes are on the road, and all of their focus is required simply to hold steady and forge forward.
Of course I wonder where I went wrong as a parent. By having children too young (I was twenty-five when my first was born). By separating from their father when they were 7 and 9. By homeschooling them when they were little or by going back to school and work myself when they were not much bigger. What might it have taken to have helped them achieve the milestones everyone else’s offspring seem to be reaching? And how much does it actually matter that they’re doing things differently, their own ways?
Sasha got a GED and a high SAT score, but seems disinclined to return to college any time soon. Isaiah will try again next year to get through tenth-grade English, having aced his exams and so passed the rest of his classes. It’s hard not to envy the valedictorian and his parents two doors down the street, whose graduation party was held last evening. It’s hard not to believe they did something right that we did not, and that their lives will be easier for it.
But at no time have we not been trying. At no time have I ceased to love my children with all my heart and to want for them the happiness and well-being that every parent wants, that we all want for those we love—and, too, for ourselves: I can’t help but feel for my own parents, who didn’t get to see me graduate from college until I was thirty-six years old, and have never yet been able to enjoy the peace of mind that might have come from seeing me financially and relationally secure. After all, at forty-four, I am on the verge of another major separation, another move, another reinvention. I wish desperately that this weren’t the case, for my parents’ sakes, for my children’s sakes, and for my own, but I also know they love me no less for it, nor I them. Our love and our lives aren’t easily Instagram-able, aren’t easy, but they are ours, and we are one another’s, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Perhaps you, too, have an unconventional family. If so, I’d love to see your photos and hear your stories. Norman Rockwell is so remote from the cultural lexicon by now that many may not even recognize the reference. But societal norms and expectations still exist and still oppress us if we let them, or, at the very least, depress us. So this is an invitation to own the images you’ve hesitated to upload, even if they look more like those of Diane Arbus, and to embrace them filter-free for who and what they are. Only by exposing the complicated components of our lives to the light can they be destigmatized, and it is my hope in so doing to be a salve for others who may be struggling similarly with this season, or any season of their lives: wedding and anniversary season when you’re single or separated or widowed or divorced; baby season, which is year round, when you’ve tried without success to have a child or lost a child or when the child you have doesn’t look or act like a model for Baby Gap. Vacation or retirement season when you may well have to work until the day you die. The holidays when those with whom traditions were established are no longer around to enact them. It’s all real. It’s all real life. It’s all we have.