Along with my older sister I grew up with my mam and dad on a 10 house cul-de-sac, in a small coastal town in Cumbria; the perfect 2.4 setup. However, this is as far as the idyllic notion of family stretched. The path of the Harpers never did run smooth; we’ve had false starts, taken detours, veered completely off course and taken unplanned pit stops, but we have always arrived at where we wanted to be. Our family timeline has been made up of moments of adjustment, meaning roles, perspectives and future plans have had to change (sometimes rather drastically). Each adjustment has removed us further from the 2.4 formula and has made us more resilient and loving as individuals and as a unit.
I was born 2 months premature and at 6 weeks old contracted bronchitis, leaving me with hemiplegia for the rest of my life. Adjustment № 1 – You have a disabled child. Growing up, this meant countless family trips to the hospital for splints and physiotherapy, fathoming out ways I could do things one-handed, a lot of tears when I ‘couldn’t be like the other kids’, laughing at my swimming in circles opposed to laps and finally the parental mantra which punctuated my childhood – ‘there’s no such word as can’t’. None of us asked for it, but there it was; my parents had to factor this challenge into how they would raise me, my sister had a little brother who would need more support and I had to find my way in a world that seemed to be built with two hands and with good balance. But we adjusted. We adjusted because there was no other way, because resistance and complaining would not change anything, because my mam and dad wanted me to have the same opportunities as my sister and because we all had a point to prove. It quickly became our everyday; I went to the same schools as my sister, became Headboy at 6th Form, went to university and followed my dream career. Adjustment successful.
Adjustment № 2 came from me – You have a gay son. The end of semester 1 at university and my mam picked me up from the station. I thought this would be the best time to tell her – she was driving and therefore couldn’t swing for me, scream too much, or walk away (not that I really thought she’d do any of those). “Don’t hate me” I said. My mam was more upset that I could even think that she would hate me for any reason. I was crying. We pulled up at home and she sent me upstairs to dry my tears. When I came out of the bathroom she had told my dad. I sat opposite him in the living room. He asked if I was OK and if I had been bullied for it. Yes and no. I paused, waiting for something. He looked at me and said ‘come on then your tea will be getting cold’. A week later they sent me a card; it was humorous and gently sincere, explaining how it might take them some time to ‘get it right’. My partner of 5 years has been very much welcomed into the family with love. Adjustment successful.
The latest adjustment is very recent and came in the form of an alien invasion (aka a rare sarcoma in my mam’s leg). Adjustment № 3 – Your mother has cancer. In just 9 weeks my mam has had confirmation of an alien, a fractured hip, an unexpected hospital stay, an operation to remove the primary alien, a new hip, a fetching leg brace, 2 lots of chemo and the Harper house is up for sale.
I’m kissing her forehead when she cries, I’m telling her ‘there’s no such word as can’t’ when she thinks about walking on her new hip, I’m buying her new underwear and I’m laughing with her at our new life.
A lot of people have discussed with me the bizarre reality of the parent/child relationship switching place. And to some degree I agree, just like the alien; you never truly contemplate it until it’s arrived. However, the more I think about it, the more it becomes normal and actually was normal before the alien came. I would do all those things without the alien forcing me to.
Roles are only a guide, relationships are only abbreviations of connections, together they are a simple commitment to do what is best for all people involved with whatever tools you have at hand. The dynamics of families can change, the dynamics will switch and I’m very lucky that within the Harper clan this has always been how we’ve worked. A family can only work if it adjusts itself to suit each person in it.
Adjustment in progress.
First published by The Huffington Post UK as part of their #thrivingfamilies initiative.