I read my friend Jessica Shattuck’s novel, Perfect Life, recently, and loved it. The marvelous book is about many things, but that which has stayed with me most is the exploration of how we create families. Of the various ways we give birth to and raise and love children, of the careful selection of who we want to live with and near, of who we coalesce with in the effort to feel stability, shared responsibility, love for the next generation.
The book made me think a lot about the ways that close friends have informed my own sense of family. Hilary and I grew up in the embrace of the “four families,” an extended network of eight adults and eight children who were as close to siblings as I can imagine. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ethan and Tyler and Matt and Annie and Nella and Maja are almost as integral to my childhood memories as Hilary is. My parents co-owned homes with two of the other couples, and we all very much grew up together. The other six parents seemed like close, doting aunts or uncles, and did not hesitate to chime in when it came to discipline or other “parental” duties. I trusted all of those other six adults completely, and knew without any doubt that they cared about me almost as if I was theirs. When, at age 12, I woke up from general anesthesia after having my broken arm re-set (read: re-broken and re-set, including traction) the people in the recovery room waiting for me to come to were Susie and Eric, not my own parents. This was the kind of intimacy and communal responsibility that we shared with the four families.
It was lovely, growing up in this diffuse but loving web, with various adults paying partial attention. This was enough that nobody fell through, but not so much that any of us felt stifled. There was room for stuff like when Ethan and I put Matt into the dryer in the basement of my old house in Cambridge, or for when Hilary and Nella and Ann walked around Mattapoisett in white sheets wrapped around them as togas. There was plenty of time for plain old play, lots of running around in various back yards and falling asleep in front of movies while our parents lingered over dinner, with wine-fueled laughter filling the air.
This group parenting is something I’ve come to love dearly about my relationship with Christina and Elizabeth’s families. It is an extraordinary privilege and pleasure to know that they are there, in every sense of the word. I know that they are both caring for my children too, that as I watch Emma make her way up the stairs out of the corner of my eye, so will Christina notice when Grace is about to slam someone’s fingers in a door and Elizabeth will catch Whit before he takes off out of the driveway down the street on the ride-on Caterpillar tractor. Matt once April Fooled Christina by calling her to say that I was out of town, he was stuck downtown, and Grace was in the ER at Mount Auburn. She was in the car with her coat on before he could get out the fact that this was a joke.
We shared our pregnancies, and since then we’ve been able to experience every stage of this eventful and surprising journey together. We are very different from each other in many ways, and profoundly similar in others. We know each others’ mothers and we know each others’ children. We are each mother to both daughters and sons. We are now bound together forever by the bounds of godmotherhood. Whatever time we spend together, with or without the kids, with or without the husbands, is always full of uproarious laughter and usually some peeing in the parking lot. There is always good music and cocktails and great jewelry and occasional tears and deep mother love. We’ve been to weddings and christenings together, and I am sure there are funerals on the horizon. We have shared clothes, sleepless night, baby nurses, bottles of wine, despair, and triumph. Between us there are two minivans and three schools and five boys and three girls and a million memories and one shared story unfolding down the middle.
Jessica’s book made me think about family, broadly defined. Christina and Elizabeth, you are family to me (not to discount my Family of Origin, of course, you are primary!). You are the people I call first thing in the morning and you are the second mothers my children already love and trust completely. I hope I am that for C, J, W, B, E, and WA. Your children are my children’s dearest friends, and to watch their very real friendships develop is an absolute joy. I love the family we have made together and I look forward with great anticipation the years ahead. Thank you.