A Family Identity

Figuring out a "family purpose" can be an excellent tool to get you through tough times.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Emotionally strong families do not just happen. They don’t just happen in families where the members have biologic connections, and they don’t just happen in adoptive families. They are the result of clear purpose, unwavering commitment to values, and unconditional love.

I don’t claim ownership of these concepts, nor any unique insight into them. In fact, I suspect that many of us have heard about them so often that they no longer hold meaning. Given our work, school, and community responsibilities, parents barely have time to eat, do laundry, and pay bills — much less meditate on abstract ideals.

But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? That’s why we believe, or want to believe, that strong families just happen, despite all the evidence to the contrary that surrounds us.

All year round — and particularly during the holiday season — I urge you to focus on building family connections and cohesion through a clear sense of purpose. Business consultants tell clients that they must have a vision and a mission statement. Coaches tell athletes that they won’t achieve a goal they have not envisioned and articulated. Similarly, when families have a clear sense of why they are together and what they want to “be,” they act from that sense of purpose, are drawn together by it, and move forward together, knowing where they’re going.

When each member of your family has articulated that he believes, for example, in taking care of himself, his family, and his world, your entire family’s path through life will be clearer.

Overcoming fears

Some adoptive parents have had to contend with fears that they were not meant to be parents, that they don’t deserve their child, or that they will never connect to their child as they would to a child born to them. Although such doubts may have been buried years ago, they can remain sensitive topics that remarks from in-laws or strangers in the grocery store can cause to resurface.

If we recognize that such fears exist, we can consciously accept them and allow them to run our lives, or we can let them go, drawing on our own experience to prove that we are entitled to be parents and do love our children as deeply as any parent. Best of all, we can replace them with a conscious sense of why we are together.

Renewing your purpose

What is your purpose in coming together as a family? What do you hope to be? For those of us who went through years of infertility, frustration with the adoption process, or both, our purpose was merely to become a family. That simple goal, seemingly easy for others to accomplish, became a formidable and elusive objective. We could not, perhaps, see beyond it.

But think about the moment you decided to adopt, remember your firm resolve. Think about the moment your child was finally placed in your arms. Some adoptive parents say they believe the waiting, and even the disappointments, were all part of a plan for them to be the parents of this particular child.

The notion of a family purpose is an extension of this idea. If your family came together with intention, why not parent with intention and grow together with intention?

Realistic goals

Your family purpose should be consistent with the purpose of your marriage (if you are married) and with your sense of individual purpose; otherwise, there is bound to be conflict. Prospective parents can start to think about the purpose of their family even before a child arrives, although it is never too late to develop one.

A purpose statement should be brief. Consequently, it will be broad, but it can still be specific and within the bounds of reality. For example, everyone would like to be happy all the time, but that’s an unrealistic family purpose — life carries with it disappointment and sadness.

Instead, you might say,“The purpose of our family is to support one another through good times and bad, to never take happiness for granted, and to find joy every day through our commitment to and love for each other.”

Your purpose should apply to every member of the family, and be broad enough to survive the test of time. Perhaps you want every member of your family to obtain a college degree. Is that realistic? If so, what would be left of your purpose after attending the last college graduation? Instead, your family purpose might be, “In our family, each member will grow to his or her potential.”

A source of strength

Your family purpose will be a touchstone. You can test your actions against the purpose to see if they are in alignment. For example, it’s easy for a parent to justify working extra hours “for the family.” But if your family purpose does not involve the accumulation of “stuff,” that’s hardly an adequate reason for missing soccer games and family dinners.

When faced with difficult decisions, let your purpose guide you. For example, review your family purpose when considering a move that might allow your spouse to take advantage of a career opportunity; when deciding what to say to a 16-year-old who wants to stop attending religious services or convert to another religion; when responding to a son who asks if he can use his college fund as seed money for a business. When faced with decisions like these, your family purpose can steer you toward the right choice.

This touchstone will also be vital in dealing with issues related to adoption. If you’re involved in an open adoption, you should discuss your purpose with your child’s birth family. Your purpose statement will clearly communicate what is important to you in raising a family.

If your elementary age child asks to search for her birth parents, think about how the possible outcomes fit within your family purpose. If you’re adopting transracially, think about how you will honor your family’s new, diverse makeup.

Discomfort with a decision that is consistent with your family purpose might signify a problem. For example, if you’ve decided that moving to a more diverse neighborhood will help you honor your child’s roots, yet you resist looking at houses for sale, revisit your purpose to refresh your resolve.

A family purpose is also valuable during the tough times that all families will inevitably encounter. When there is a health crisis, a financial or legal problem, or relationship stress, the purpose can help people stay centered. A clear purpose says, “This is why we have come together.” Once you have settled on your family purpose, write it down. Laminate it. Post it on your refrigerator door. Talk about it. Let it guide you.


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