I have three fathers. Three different men have called me son, and all three of them had the full right to do it. This has made for a complicated family tree, which in turn makes for some interesting conversations with my children as they try to piece together where they come from. To help them process, my wife and I started talking about these relationships when the children were very young. As they’ve grown older, they’ve become able to peel away the layers, adding new detail to their understanding of their roots from a standpoint of familiarity with story. Our prayer is for them to fully embrace the depths and complexities of their family tree and receive these relationships as gifts from their Heavenly Father.
As I mentioned, I have three fathers. I’ve had three last names. My mother was just 17 years old when she gave birth to me under her maiden name. Even though I’d known about him for quite some time, my biological father would not play a direct role in my life until I finally met him when I was 23. (He has since passed away.) A year or so after I was born, my mother got married. Her new husband adopted me, gave me his last name, and brought me into a large, extended family that fully accepted me as one of their own. He is my adoptive or legal father; it’s his name that I put on official documents, such as passport applications. After eight years they divorced, and my mother, a couple of years later, married again. My stepfather would be the one that I called “Dad.” He too brought me into a family that received me wholeheartedly as part of them. He provided stability and security. To honor him, I legally changed my last name to Hunt when I was 18.
Having three fathers also means that I have four sets of grandparents, instead of two. I’m the oldest grandchild in all three of my fathers’ families. To complicate matters further for my children, I have been divorced once and married again. I had sole custody of two children, whom my second wife has adopted, and we’ve had three more kids together. You can see why helping our children understand their family trees has been challenging. Our older kids not only have the complexity of my family background to contend with, they have two maternal families to incorporate into their stories as well.
While unusual, our complicated family tree is by no means unique, especially when you consider that less than half of children today live in “traditional” family structures, and that over 50% of families are remarried or re-coupled. So how do we help our kids make sense of their family structures and understand their places in them?
My wife and I made it a policy to share openly about our backgrounds with our children, including my paternity and the divorce. We didn’t want any bombshell revelations later. I remember being stunned to learn, at the age of 10, that the man my mother had been married to for eight years and recently divorced was not my biological father, but had adopted me. A hundred questions exploded in my mind, and some have never been answered. Therefore, even when my children were very little, we talked about how the older two kids have a different biological mother and another pair of grandparents. We talked about having three grandfathers on my side. As they get older, their questions become more focused and probing. Sometimes the conversations can be uncomfortable, but we worked through them purposefully to allow our children to gain a natural understanding of these complex relationships, perhaps in a similar way that small children acquire language. We let them actively order the family tree in their young minds, pose questions, and identify their places in it, as much as they needed to.
Helping our children understand their sometimes complex roots is one thing, but it’s a much more challenging thing to actually invite them into these more complicated relationships. Distance and dysfunction might raise significant barriers. For example, a great deal of sin and hurt caused my mother’s divorce from my adoptive father. For many years, I was estranged from him, even though I maintained relationships with his parents and siblings. While there has been reconciliation between him and me, habit, time, and space have complicated bringing my children, his grandchildren, into the relationship. Yet, when they are safe for us or our children, little is more dear in this life than our family relationships, be they biological, adoptive, or step.
As Proverbs 15:20 says, “a wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother.” This means we have to be purposeful. While as an adult I had gotten to know my biological father, he died before most of my children were born. It hasn’t always been easy, but his daughters (my half-sisters) and I, with the support of all our spouses, have worked hard to draw our families closer together. We live in different states and our earlier visits felt awkward with all the “getting to know you.” But, as time passed, we began to relax in each other’s company and just have fun. All together, we have a big bunch of kids and these cousins delight in hanging out and playing. With each get-together, we build lasting memories and tighter bonds. I’m thrilled to have my sisters (my mother had all sons after all) and I’m grateful my children have wonderful aunts.
Some of our family trees have multiple trunks and sometimes (perhaps often) the stories behind them are ones of brokenness and hurt. I’ve found that sharing early and openly has smoothed the way for my children to understand the complexity of their family tree and to embrace its various trunks and limbs. It’s an ongoing journey over sometimes rough terrain, but I believe through his grace, God gives these relationships as a gift.