Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Search for Back Up Parents

Nothing has brought me closer to death than giving birth.

Before I had my son, I thought about death, but only occasionally, the way I assume most others do.  It was there in the abstract, off in the distance, never threatening, never looming.  Like a distant cousin, it reminded me of its existence every once in a while, when I happened to pass an accident on the freeway or read a novel with tragic ending, which in turn reminded me to live more purposefully, meaningfully.  But apart from its occasional pep talk, it had little to do with me.

Back then, I didn't fear death.  If anything, I felt cavalier.  So what, I remember saying.  What do I have to lose?  My life was my own, and I was beholden to no one.  If something were to happen to me, a few others may be sad or even devastated, but I didn't own their grief.  I was the only one who could potentially suffer, but not really because wouldn't I be dead after all?  Just make it quick and don't let me suffer too much, was my canned retort.

This cavalier attitude started to change when I became pregnant.  I'm not sure if it was the hormones or just the change in circumstances, but suddenly, the threat of death seemed to be everywhere.  And it seemed so real, so possible.  I could slip down the stairs.  Jeff's car could be side-wiped by any of the crazy aggressive drivers out here.  My toddler son could fall off of a jungle gym.  My baby could chock on a piece of carrot.  My brain seemed to have entered a heightened state, and my eyes were suddenly opened to the many colorful ways in which one could die.  Throughout the day, a million different scenarios of death danced in my head.

I became hyper-aware of all that I had to lose.  And I couldn't stop thinking that our babies were wholly dependent on me and Jeff.  Wholly.  What if something happened to us?  How could they survive?  Who would take care of them?  If I could, I would have hid in a cave like Gollum, protecting my precious from all the harm that could befall us.  But we don't own a cave.  All we have is a rental house in La Jolla.  And locking oneself in a house with a toddler and a baby is not a good strategy, especially less than half a mile from the beach.  Besides, staying at home is no guarantee of safety.  I kept imagining myself accidentally skewering myself on one of Jeff's many tools in the garage while at home with the kids alone.  Would my son know how to undo the safety latch on the pantry to at least open a can of spam and a box of Fruitables until he was found?    

So Jeff and I came up with our next best strategy.  We decided to finalize our trust papers and set up back-up guardians in case something happened to us.  We didn't understand the complexity of this task -- or the difficulty of identifying a suitable person -- until we started talking through it.

I think I had just assumed that my children would be raised by someone in our extended family if something were to happen.  I secretly preferred someone on my side of the family because I feared that my children would otherwise lose any understanding of my personal history as an immigrant and a Korean-American.  Besides, Jeff's parents are quite old and would his unmarried brother really want to become a parent overnight when he has never changed a single diaper (that is, if you don't count his dog's)?

The only problem with selecting someone from my family is that there is no one in my family whom I would entrust to raise my children.  The best candidates would be my parents, except that they are old.  And now that I was squarely facing the question, I wondered how my children would fare with my parents who, even after four decades in the US, still have trouble communicating with non-Koreans and lack exposure to wide swaths of American life.  Did I really want my children to be bogged down by the same cross cultural issues that I had growing up?

As for my siblings, my relationship with them is essentially nonexistent.  My sister and I used to be close, but about five years ago, over some issues that I still do not understand, she cut me off, and we haven't talked since.  My brother is married with kids, but we never really understood each other growing up and have made little effort to stay in touch as adults, except for the occasional gift exchange or gathering at my parents'.  Apart from my nuclear family, we have no other relatives in the US, except for one of my dad's cousins, whom I've met only a few times.

Taking stock of one's family in this fashion is an eye opening exercise.  It's unsettling to assess your family through a utilitarian lens, but after I did, I felt a disappointment creep in.  Perhaps it has something to do with my history of having grown up as an immigrant, where our nuclear family was alone in this country for so long, where we were repeatedly told that we had no one but each other in times of trouble.  Or a result of living in a country unfamiliar to my parents, where the role of the parents and dependents were inverted at times, and the assimilated children sometimes took the leading role in navigating this foreign land.  But the thought that I couldn't turn to anyone in my family on a matter as important as this made me feel angry.  My family felt defective -- as if we've failed in one of the basic functions that a family should be and do for each other.  Yet again, we couldn't be the kind of family I wanted us to be.

Obviously, it takes two to have a bad (or a non-existent) relationship, and it is unfair for me to put the blame squarely on them.  After the anger subsided, I felt sad, as I often have in the past, about the failed relationships in our family.  It pains me that my sister has never met my children.  And my brother and his family have met my three year old son once and never met my 11 months old daughter.  For some reason, we failed to weather life's stresses together, perhaps because there were too many or because we lacked the skills to manage them.  But whatever the cause, we were now drifting in separate directions, without the means to reach out and tie our rafts together.

I had been raised with traditional Korean values.  Growing up, there seemed to be an invisible ring around our family, separating those in the family from others.  Friends, no matter how close, were not family and would never be.  Blood was holy, and we were never to elevate outsiders above family.  But in this process of choosing a guardian for my children, I seem to have no choice but to look to outsiders.  That has been a giant mental hurdle for me, and a part of me feels reluctant to accept it, even though it is obvious that I have no choice.

It's sad to think that my original family could be erased from my children's lives.  The relationships are so tenuous now;  how much more attenuated would they be if I were no longer in the picture?  Would my East Coast parents visit more than sporadically, and how would they deal with the logistics once my children were living with another family?  Would my children even realize that they have an uncle and an aunt on my side of the family and that they have cousins?  Who would tell them that their history wasn't always of this country, that they could stake claim to another land, another people?  These questions give me a headache, and the answers seem obvious -- and painful.

The irony in all this is that we have incredible friends.  Friends who would eagerly step in and help out.  Friends who would treat our children as their own.  Friends who pamper our children the way my own brother and sister have not.

So when Jeff and I sat down to select a guardian for our son, we started by ruling out my family.  It is a hypothetical situation, and yet, it feels so final, so determinative.  But you can't plan your children's future on some far-fetched hope of reconciliation.  And that seems to be enough of a bridge for me to make my mental leap.

After we closed the door to my family, we opened the door to our friends.  There, on the perch, we scanned the crowd and started to sort.  First, we ruled out all of our single friends because we were worried that they may no longer be able to commit once a new spouse entered the picture.  Then we ruled out our friends who chose not to have children because we didn't want to impose a different lifestyle on them than they had chosen for themselves.  Also, now that we were parents, we understood how radically one's life changes with children, how so much is centered around them.  And we wondered if our friends without children could understand how much they were agreeing to give up even if they graciously agreed out of the goodness of their hearts.

After that initial sorting, we did a little more fine tuning.  So and so may not work out because they don't want more than one kid.  So and so may not be good because he has a medical condition and we shouldn't add more stresses on their lives.  So and so may not want to because aren't they already overwhelmed with four kids of their own?

Then, Jeff and I talked about our remaining friends individually and made a mental list of several friends who fit the bill.  As we discussed then one by one, we found ourselves saying things like, "Oh, yeah, so and so would be great.  They are such good parents." or "Oh, I bet they would do it.  Such good people.  And I know they would take good care of them." After we had gone through our friends in such manner, we had several candidates.  Among them, we selected one couple simply because we like them so much -- and because they are incredible parents to their two children.

When we next met with them, we popped the question.  When we asked, I found myself scrutinizing their facial expressions to see if they were really saying "yes," or just saying "yes" because they felt they couldn't say "no."  But the minute we asked, they said, "Of course!"  And followed with, "I can't believe you even asked us.  It would be such an honor!"  Their response warmed my heart, and I couldn't believe that they were so enthusiastic in their response.  We asked them to think about it for a couple of days, and they said, "We don't have to think about it.  The answer is still yes."

Later, I followed up with an email to them and let them know that if anything should happen, they would of course get all of our assets to pay for the expense of raising our children.  And they responded that they would do it even without the assets.

A couple of years later, when I became pregnant with my second child, we asked them the question again to see if they would agree to be guardians for our second child as well.  And again, their response was an enthusiastic "yes!".

We recently spent a week visiting them in the Bay Area.  They moved their son into his sister's room for the week so that our son could use his bed.  They fed us breakfast every morning, and incorporated our son into their own children's routine, including sharing a cup of homemade smoothie every morning and taking a bath together in their big tub at the end of the day.  When the week was over, my son whined that he didn't want to go home.  He wanted to play longer at M and K's house.

As we drove away, Jeff and I talked about what good parents they are.  Ridiculously well organized and diligent, they are one of the few couples we know who make us feel like total slackers.  How fortunate we are to be friends with such generous souls.

They aren't blood kin.  They aren't even Korean.  But they are willing to stretch themselves to make room for our children in their home and their hearts.  Knowing that makes a little bit of that fear inside me subside.  And makes me want to return the favor to some other parent reluctant to burrow in a cave.  

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