The benefits of dealing with big family changes together

Why does it matter whether you can create an extended family or not?  Aren't you just better off keeping most of the power in your own hands?  If you form more of a connection to the other family, won't that mean they just end up getting away with more shit?  How do you create a balance between the two family units?  And is that even possible? Are the potential rewards worth the effort?

I've posted recently about our oldest daughter, Sophie, leaving home.  I thought I'd let you see what moving through that process looked like (in a three-part post) when it came to doing it together, from my eyes (the mom).

First… her party.

Stiff smiles and Salvadore Dali clocks I'd long had this idea in my head for some kind of ritualistic ceremony for Sophie and then later, for Maddie. (You can blame/thank Joseph Campbell for that - he once said something about how teens don't have any sort of transitional rituals in our culture and they suffer because of it; acting out, sometimes blurring the lines between independence and dependency long before or after what's best. At any rate, it struck a chord).

At first, I thought we'd do it when she turned sixteen, but that didn't happen.  Then I thought I'd do it when she graduated, but really, what pushed it to the fore was her leaving for foreign lands (the wilderness that is Europe).  Somehow, the idea that she'd not only be leaving the house, but traveling somewhere big and new on her own, made this half-baked idea of a ritual seem somehow more urgent.

What I had in mind was a group of elders, sitting around, telling the unvarnished truth about a variety of topics, ones that real grown-ups dealt with, like responsibility, life purpose, sex, relationships, money.  I imagined women who had known her all (or most) of her life telling stories -- relaying near misses, lessons learned the hard way, things they'd wish they'd known long ago….  Those same nuggets of wisdom could go in a book too!  People could write things down beforehand and then we'd put them in and give it to Sophie during the party.  I envisioned juicy details, lots of laughing, a wonderful feeling of intimacy and closeness in the air.  And lots of love of course.

What ended up happening was uh… slightly different.

Spontaneous love-in's cannot be planned Carol (the stepmom) thought the idea was brilliant.  And beautiful.


It was to be a surprise, so we simply told Sophie that she needed to stick around that day, because we had something up our sleeves.

Carol and I brainstormed the guest list together and whittled down the list of topics from 15 to 10.  We planned the food, who would make what.  It'd be women-only so we could really let it all hang out.

Unfortunately, what became evident after I sent out the invitations was how squirmy people felt about their little "writing assignment."  Several folks, including myself, left it 'til the last minute.  When I finally did my writing, I saw why!  This was hard -- even embarrassing.  This crap was the sum of my life's wisdom, this cliché-sounding bit of pith?

Leave it to Carol and David (my ex-, her husband) to tactfully bring it to my attention that Sophie probably wouldn't really enjoy or appreciate a roomful of adults giving her what would probably feel like advice.  It all seemed so nice and glow-y in theory, but in practice, would likely feel forced and awkward.

So we dropped the "ritualistic" part of it and simply focused on the book.

Lucky for us, Carol comes from an extremely creative family (no surprise there, look at Carol's site or step into her studio).  Her mother, Sandra, made a stunning handmade book for us to use (she even wove the beautiful black and red fabric - thanks, Sandra!) and we threw the whole thing together one evening, a few days before the party.

A glitch sensitively conveyed though - David felt a bit left out.... If this was going to be some kind of big, meaningful send-off for his daughter, he didn't want to just be at home, wondering what was going on.  So… he'd be the honorary man-guest. He knew everyone who'd be coming anyway. Plain old reality can be oh-so-lovely Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we seemed to be swamped in activity.  There were errands to run to make sure Sophie had everything she needed, but it also seemed to be one constant party at our house.  Two of her closest friends simply stayed, day after day, night after night.  While normally I might have asked her to wrap it up kiddo, I thought it was a harmless enough way to give her some sweet memories before she left.  I could live with some extra crumbs in the kitchen and a continuously disappearing cupboard….

So the day of the party finally arrived.

I was watching David and Carol's dogs again (another dog-sitting/tech. help swap) and Maddie and my mom and I set up the house.  Sophie's friends were already here, so, they came.  The various "elders" arrived (limping, all wearing feathered-headdresses and bejeweled canes), and so did Jacob, Sophie's little brother.  It was quite the raucous event.

No ceremonies.

No rituals.

Just an acknowledgment that she was about to take off on a journey out into the huge, wide world....  Some talk of where she was going, what she'd like to do....  But no pronouncements from on high.  Just shitloads of fantastic food, wine, and a fancy, crystal punch dispenser that looked like it was imported from Russia (thanks Mom!).

And a few mumbled words from me as I handed over the book, about how much we all loved her and were going to miss her, but also how excited we all were for her.

Perhaps the most ritualistic touch came from Sophie's little sister Maddie herself, in an impromptu idea that she came up with, all on her own.  For about two days before the party, Maddie worked furiously cutting up long strips of paper to be folded into beautiful little paper stars.  She used her special patterned paper (that kid could work magic with dirt) and got the stars started for people.  Then she printed out instructions for everyone, asking them to write a secret wish or hope or saying for Sophie. She bought her a tiny cardboard treasure chest to store the stars in (something small and light to fit in her backpack) and set out pens, books to write on, and a little glass jar to collect the stars on a tray.

I fretted a bit at the gathering, wondering if Sophie was enjoying herself. Then, one of my dearest friends (an honorary aunt to the girls) reassured me, it wasn't so much the way Sophie felt NOW that was important, it was how she was going to remember all of this, with her whole family and her friends here, celebrating HER….