A dear friend recently lost her grandmother. The funeral was well-attended, as Grandma Ruth had lived a long life and endeared herself to many. Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Al had eight children, and four of the eight children were divorced, remarried, and had stepchildren. When my friend described the funeral, I was envisioning a giant picture of a family tree with branches upon branches connecting the entire cast of characters. At the top of the tree was Grandma Ruth, who opened her heart to her entire family, whether related by blood, adoption, marriage, remarriage, or simply kinship. I was delighted to hear that her step-grandchildren paid tribute, recognizing that Grandma Ruth accepted them as her own when they often felt they were merely part of their family’s “baggage.”
Too bad this is the exception rather than the rule. I’ve heard many stories about evil stepmothers or stepfathers and unfair treatment in blended families. It’s a fact of life in the 21st century that our families no longer consist of a mother and father of the same race and religion, with 2.5 children and a dog. Family is complicated. It’s messy. No two families look alike. And everybody thinks the solution is unconditional love. I can write about unconditional love until my fingers fall off, but sometimes it’s not realistic. How can a daughter unconditionally love her stepfather when he molested her? How can a son unconditionally love his mother when he thinks she abandoned him?
In theory, unconditional love is absolutely the answer. Just read “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom if you need further proof. To me, unconditional love can be as complicated as your family tree. The biology factor in unconditional love is easy to understand, but what’s not so easy is when there’s no biology. Your parents got divorced when you were young. Each of them remarried people with children from prior marriages. Are you supposed to unconditionally love your new stepparent? Are their kids supposed to love your mom or dad unconditionally? I think that’s a lot to expect.
Then factor in grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, step-cousins (is there such a thing?) and family friends who are honorary aunts and uncles. The branches of these family trees are so intertwined they look like spaghetti on a plate. Complicated is an understatement! Can you imagine their holiday newsletter? Hundreds of people on the email list, and footnotes galore explaining who’s who. Yet everybody loves everybody at least once a year, right? Ha! Certainly not in the case of the families who have asked to sit at my conference table.
Maybe what’s needed instead of unconditional love is unconditional acceptance. That’s what Grandma Ruth did.