“The nuclear family is a recent invention and a death blow to love — an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep. None of the great virtues … is meant to be carried in isolation.” — Krista Tippett
We may have been considered a “non-traditional family” by some since before Tucker became part of us, simply based on the fact that our kids are adopted, and not white. But we functioned as any other “traditional” biological family as far as our roles were concerned. A mom, a dad, a big sister, a little brother.
When Tucker came, things became “non-traditional”, and that continues to be something we work through on a daily basis. I cannot say that roles changed, but that roles were spread out, and roles were added.
Tucker came to stay after a summer of what began as long, daily visits, where he’d text to let us know he had gotten home safely, even if he didn’t leave until 4 am. He had the code to the house, and got what he wanted out of the fridge on his own, and we sometimes came home from being out doing errands with the kids to find him here, but he was still essentially a visitor. Not a guest, but a visitor.
Over time, he supplemented his visiting activities — board games, movie watching, eating — with more reciprocal ones. Dog walking. Reading to kids. Making deviled eggs, birthday cakes, and dishes from his own childhood (overripe bananas saved from the compost by being fried in bacon fat; I’ve watched him not only make them, but blow on them to cool them before putting them in a bundled, mittened child’s mouth on their way out the door to school).
His long-into-the-night visits, where conversation got going after one AM, began evolving into more sleepovers. One night, as he went to bed on the fold-out couch in what was still sort-of the kids’ playroom, he asked Ben to wake him the next morning if we were all leaving; he did not, he said, like waking up in the house alone.
Late that summer, we had had a family meeting with the kids and said, Remember when Tuck was someone we just saw in the coffee shop, or who came to visit and help watch the house when we went away? It’s pretty different now, right? Well, we love Tuck and Tuck loves us, so he is part of this family now, and that makes him your brother.
More or less.
We were clear with the kids that this new undertaking did not make Tucker our son, nor us his parents. The kids knew who Tuck’s parents were, so that was not hard for them to understand, nor was it hard for them to understand why he might want to be elsewhere. At the time, it seemed mostly to be enough of a relief that he was staying to quell any other questions.
Claudia was particularly happy. Béla, however, at the time this pronouncement was made, gave off an unmistakable air of: But he DID just used to be that guy in the coffee shop. He can’t tell me I have to get in the SHOWER.
I was surprised it was Béla who was more thrown off. For months prior, we had watched Claudia go through a behavioral shift that was, in retrospect, clearly a reset of her system as she processed her change in family birth order. She was no longer the oldest kid. As though it were a biological adaptation, she went from being a tyrannical oldest sister to a little sister who could be wheedled, teased and terrorized. (Now she can be both.)
Nothing had changed in Béla’s order — he was still the baby of the family. And he himself had become Claudia’s brother simply by arriving by airplane. That was not an unprecedented way to get a brother. There was no missing his waves of resentment, though, and to this day, periodically, there still isn’t any missing them. A punch will be thrown at some point, I guarantee it. Béla may be ten, or sixteen, or twenty when it happens, but Tucker’s going to take it on the chin. Or block it. Who can say. The underlying unresolved issue remains, and it’s no longer But you were just that kid who watched the house when my family went on vacation. It is, I love you, but you aren’t my parent, and if you’re my brother, you’re going to take shit from me — because I don’t HAVE to respect you the way I’m expected to do for “real” grown-ups.
And frankly, he’s right. We sneak-attacked him with someone we said served the purpose of one title — “brother” — but continually corrected him when he treated that person as one with that title would be treated.
We recently hung out with a a guy in his twenties, a few years older than Tuck but with a similar bent — a science guy, very driven, and very, very bright. Watching them talk together was fascinating. They were spouting stuff I could barely understand, both with big circles under their eyes (Tuck had turned in his final assignment of the term while walking down the street less than an hour before, laptop held out in front of him). This fellow, who we had met with to discuss the design and fabrication of dancing fans for the kids’ showcase for Parade of Spirits, showed us how a 3D printer worked, and we checked out a large laser cutter and some other cool things at a fabrication studio, and then we went to get something to eat.
“So are you learning something about this thing?” our new friend asked Tuck as we waited for our food, waving in the kids’ general direction. When Tuck did not seem to understand, he elaborated: “That thing that begins with ‘P’ and ends in ‘enting'”?
I cannot attest to what Tuck “knows” about parenting, but he certainly experiences it. At the same time, where Ben and I used to leave him with the kids alone for a few hours to go to dinner or something — we really don’t do that anymore, because Tucker hates it. I remember having him keep the kids in the hotel with him while Ben and I went on a “date” once in DC, only to come back to find Tuck nearly in pieces. When I reassured him he’d done a good job, he snapped, “Why? Because they’re alive? Because I’m alive?” (He learned that night that when the kids say “We’re hungry,” it’s far, far too late to look at the phone and see what pizza places are nearby, and to then order the pizza, and then wait for the pizza to come.)
Even at home, even given the most prefab of Trader Joe’s dinners and a movie to watch — it was a lot for him, if he was the only person on deck. It’s not something he has to be good at.
But will he spend eight hours with a kid cleaning their room? Yes. Does he play more board games with them than anyone else? Yes. When feelings are hurt at school, who is the person whose pep talk is going to matter most to the kid? Tucker’s. The fit of their clothes, the Hundred Book Challenge, the pulling of baby teeth, the first roller coaster ride and overseeing the first trip alone inside the corner store to buy candy — Tucker is on the inside track. He just needs to know there’s someone else around. While the interaction between Tuck and the kids is filial for the most part, it’s also more fluid than that.
The kids fluctuate with their terminology: when everyone is at home, we are simply “the adults”. When asked outright if they feel like Tucker is a brother or a parent, they have shrugged and said it’s somewhere in the middle. That is exactly how a friend I grew up with (and still know), described it at the time she was eight and I was six, about her own then-college-aged and married siblings.
Human fertility cycles can run long enough that you can’t use the clothes as hand-me-downs unless you’re trying to look retro. The fact that we put our family together out of existing humans, rather than humans we made, doesn’t necessarily change that dynamic. Still, when you fill out the Emergency Contact Forms for school, and they want to know the authorized individual’s Relationship to Child, we are all in agreement that no one is going to find “Kidnapee” to be a valid or humorous response. “Brother” it is.
Labels aside, I no longer have any idea how anyone would try to raise any number of children with just two people, or why they would. What can those two people possibly expect from each other at the end of the day? How can anyone fulfill their personal potential? It’s beyond division of labor; it’s intentionally limiting the pool of skills and talents. Recently, it was me who found the swollen lymph nodes behind Claudia’s ear, which might have gone unnoticed for days otherwise; it was Ben who zipped home to take her to the doctor to find out she was ok; and it was Tuck who was there at the end of it all, to play a board game with Claudia and a stuffed friend, and then read the story of Baba Yaga to both kids, in at least ten different theatrical voices.
Ben and I, pressed for options, could have managed both A and B; but instead we got to each take our specialty, and, when worn out from that, had someone ready to take over with C, which believe me, neither of us had the stamina for. That day isn’t remembered as the day Claudia had the swollen lymph nodes behind her ear; it’s the night Tucker read Baba Yaga in all those voices.
Though he too likes the multi-voiced storytelling and reading, Béla may wait decades to finally articulate exactly how furious he initially was at having Tucker move in with us. But, like the guy who showed us around the fabrication studio and let us play with the 3D printer — Béla, even at seven, can talk to Tuck about things Ben and I cannot. They discuss and explore computer games, statistics, manifolds. Tucker once, in a truly Hallmark moment of sentimentality and bonding, sat down with Béla and showed him all his Magic: The Gathering cards.
I could sense Béla’s initial enthusiasm — getting one-on-one “Tucker Time” is always in demand, and he was tipsy with joy. But hours went on, and Tucker, as many Aspies are wont to do, failed to notice the signs of Béla’s flagging tolerance. I suggested to Tuck that maybe Béla had taken in all the knowledge he could take in, so that the session should come to a close.
I asked Béla if he’d enjoyed his Tucker Time. “I had fun,” he said, “but after awhile, I started to miss the rest of my family.” We were in the living room.
Béla may have some appreciation of the things that Tucker can give him that we can’t as far as intellectual stimulation and entertainment. He is too young, and lacks the self-awareness, to see yet is that for the rest of us, time with him — Béla — is also a bit of an Everest trek. Things go on in much more detail than we might wish to entertain, and the air gets thin, and we, too, begin to miss the rest of our family. Without Tucker, Béla might be alone during those times, asked to go read a book or play on his own. With Tuck, he doesn’t always have to.
Everyone agrees, it seems, that “it takes a village” — but why does it only take a village to raise a child? What about the rest of us? Are all parents so completely fulfilled that they don’t EVER consider that perhaps it should also take a village — or more than just one other human — to get their jokes, to listen to the music they want to listen to, to have conversations they can’t have with anyone else? Yeah, we may have friends and co-workers and peers who may meet these needs — but once we are in our pajamas at home, does it all come down to one other person? The sound of Tuck and Ben laughing two floors down about something I know I don’t give a rat’s ass about is a wonderful feeling for me. It’s one conversation I didn’t have to smile through politely with either of them. We are all really different people. It is nice that we dispensed early with the idea that there were also supposed to be movies that all three of us needed to watch together on a regular basis. Because there aren’t. That’s pretty occasional. (And half of that time, involves the kids.) (And I prefer to do all my TV and movie watching entirely alone — something no one in the family really seems to understand or appreciate.)
There are times when I wonder just how “weird” our situation seems to outsiders, but, as Ben has pointed out, “I don’t know what counts as weird, more and more the distinction seems idiotically provincial.” He has a point — when I picture “outsiders”, I picture our neighborhood. In Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania. In the United States. Why is America so out of step with other countries who have more than two generations — and more members of those generations — living together in a home? It isn’t just 1985’s misguided “USA for Africa” campaign that led us astray — the errant message seems to have lasted since then. The truth is, we aren’t the world.
Look up the noun coliving. (Feel free to add a dot org to it.) It’s happening for a wide range of people, for a wide range of reasons. For autistic people, it can be a boon. To live with people who love you and whom you love, with whom you can share great joy and family culture — and also receive assistance with supported decision-making (look it up, feel free to ad a dot org to it) — can be pretty cool.
Not all autistic people want or need it. Not all neurotypical people want to or can provide it.
In this house, we are pretty well matched. Read about it, and read about why others are doing it — living outside the construct of the nuclear family — and what it gives them. We are, as far as we are concerned, a nuclear family. We just got here a different way.
Claudia worries, and requires occasional reassurance, that Tucker is not, like other 22-year-olds, someone on the verge of leaving the nest. He is part of what makes the nest. She understands that his Asperger’s is part of his desire to stay here, rather than go live on his own, or with roommates. We talk about housing challenges for autistic people a lot at home, and are involved in projects to hopefully help address that issue in Philadelphia — but none of those projects are anticipated to mean new living spaces for Tucker.
She asks when we talk about his graduation next year, And then what? She remembers, vaguely, a time when he was far away. But Tucker’s not going anywhere anytime soon. We are a three-adult, two-kid family.
It is not always easy.
There are two men in this house.
Ask most married women; one is plenty. Ask most married mothers, who only have ONE man in their house, if they’ve ever felt that their husband/children’s father is more like an extra child; then just start laughing and clink your coffee cups together, because it is a rhetorical question.
Add one more man.
It is impossible for me not to be in some way “maternal” to someone who is twenty-four years my junior and who also comes with a considerable range of executive functioning deficits related to ASD. If I have to remind Tucker when to eat, sleep, and explain to him why he should do the homework that is due tomorrow before he does the homework that is due Friday (particularly since it is already one in the morning), then perhaps that behavior can be construed by someone who does not know many autistic people as “maternal”. It does not by any stretch make me feel like his mother.
I acknowledge his autistic identity, because it was so heartbreaking to see it minimized — and then, once it was a fact and not a conjecture, to see it staunchly ignored. People will value a structure, and tell you about how long its been standing and how many people created it, before they will question its integrity. Fuck that house. This is our house.
It’s been shitty here this month.
Somewhere between, or after, having one of our pet rats euthanized, and three trips to the doctor for Claudia’s temporarily compromised immune system, Ben and Tucker were looking for a “good time” to tell me my dad had had a stroke. I found out about it before the good time came. Unlike both Tucker and Ben, from whom I literally do not even need to hide holiday presents — I have left labelled, unwrapped boxes in full view in common rooms, they see nothing — I notice a lot of things. I have PTSD. I am hypervigilant. I can tell when a picture has fallen off a wall and been replaced slightly askew. I can tell who put the leftovers away by looking at which containers were chosen to put them in. And I figured out, before they got around to telling me, that there had been a change with my dad.
It was a small enough stroke that he was considered to be “back to normal”. He is back at his house with his paid caregivers.
In a parallel universe, it would be here that my father would be dying. In my house, with my children.
We get to choose. You get to choose.
You just don’t get to choose for us.
During this extended not-good-time, a sick and run-down Claudia took a nap with an equally used-up Tucker, who has utilized naps as sensory breaks ever since coming to live here. (“I never needed naps before the feelings” is an offhand comment he made years ago, that I wrote down and transferred onto a large piece of fabric in rather rustic embroidery.) They lay nose to nose, and I could not see my daughter’s face, but saw Tuck’s. I never saw such a look of complete and unconditional love. It changed his features profoundly. He looked more relaxed, more adult, more experienced, more present. Very present.
Claudia studiously watched Tucker fall asleep, then snorted, wiggled, and fell asleep herself.
Tuck got up about twenty minutes later and went downstairs for the pizza Claudia had previously requested, bringing it up to the bedroom so that it was there waiting for her (we are no respecters of room functions).
When she woke up, she jammed a piece of pizza into her face, said “I’m gonna see what’s happening. I have no idea what I’m missing.” And went downstairs to find Ben and Béla. She left us sitting there, without a worry as to what, if anything, we might be missing. She knows we are all capable of figuring it out for ourselves.