On my son’s second birthday, he sat at the kitchen table eyeing a mountain of macaroni and cheese, one of his favorite foods, piled on an Elmo plate. Beside him was an Elmo party blower soaked in spit and melted cheese. Above him was a “Happy Birthday” banner, the same one we used the year before, and a fleet of balloons in all colors — even some tiger-striped. (Sonny was in the middle of a serious tiger phase then.)
We may have had the decorations, but what should have been a party didn’t seem like much of one. Sitting around the table were my then wife, Jaime, her mother and me — all the family Sonny had, except his aunt and uncle, who were snowed in out in Spokane. The three of us oohed and aahed at his every adorable move: how he tried to feed the dogs macaroni with his small spoon; the way he spit on his candles instead of blowing them out. But something was missing.
While Jaime’s immediate family were in Sonny’s life as much as they could be, my family wasn’t. I was an only child. My father left before I was born, and I hadn’t spoken to my mother in the last seven years. Sonny had met one of my cousins when she came to Seattle, but otherwise he didn’t know any McGuigans. Most of them lived in New York — basically the other side of the world when you’re traveling with a toddler who can’t sit still without a steady stream of cartoons, apple juice and Goldfish.
Before my son was born, family had never been very important to me. It always seemed like more of an obligation than a sense of belonging and togetherness. Growing up, I’d been closer to my friends’ families than my own, a bond that seemed as thick as blood. Besides her grandparents and a couple of aunts and uncles, Jaime had never been terribly close with her own family either, despite living in the same small town.
Like most parents, I wanted my son to have the childhood I didn’t. In many ways, I was able to provide more for him, but I couldn’t give him a bigger family, and I felt tremendous guilt that mine wasn’t part of his life.
But what could I do? We were separated by thousands of miles, and in my father’s case by his choice to leave. Maybe I could’ve made more of an effort with my mother, but I was too busy with my own growing family to make sense of our estrangement, much less cope with the rift that had caused it.
When I lay Sonny in his bed that night, I looked into his eyes and promised that his third birthday would be bigger than his second. “OK, Daddy!” he said, as if I’d offered him “little cheese” (what he calls string cheese) instead of “big cheese” (the stuff that comes in a block). The size of his party didn’t matter. He was just happy to have Momma, Daddy, Grandma and all that macaroni.
I didn’t know then that Jaime and I would split up six months later; that I would move out of my son’s childhood home, a place we bought to give him the family life neither of us had had. For a while, I assumed the divorce would narrow Sonny’s definition of family even further. Instead, it has expanded it. Unable to rely on each other like we used to, both Jaime and I have sought out other relationships — not just romantically — and in turn have brought more people into our son’s life.
In my effort to create an idealized family for Sonny, I’d forgotten that the concept of nuclear family exploded long ago. These days, families come in all shapes and sizes: moms and dads, single parents, co-parents, two moms, two dads, grandmas and grandpas, adoptive parents and many other combinations.
What I also failed to realize was family needn’t just be blood. Sonny has so many people who care about him: Jaime’s family; some of mine; our many adult friends, all surrogate aunts and uncles; his friends at daycare; my mom friend, Stacy, and her son, Nick; and my girlfriend. Each of them loves Sonny as much as any “real” family would.
By the time his third birthday rolls around, Sonny will have that big party I promised. He’ll have friends his own age to play choo-choos and build Lego castles with, and adults to use chipmunk voices while blowing up balloons and singing him “Happy Birthday” off-key. And he’ll have way more oohs and aahs.
Sometimes that’s all a kid really needs.