This summer, I read a fascinating book called Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black. This week, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Gregory H. Williams (pictured here) in person on October 22, as he visited Abington Friends School.
For those who may not know his story, the quote from the book’s back cover reads, “As a child in 1950s segregated Virginia, Gregory Howard Williams grew up believing he was white. But when the family business failed and his parents’ marriage fell apart, Williams discovered that his dark-skinned father, who had been passing as Italian-American, was half-black. The family split-up, and Greg, his younger brother, and their father moved to Muncie, Indiana where the young boys learned the truth about their heritage. Overnight, Greg Williams became black.” Dr. Williams grew up in a time when racial boundaries were very rigid. And on top of all that, his father was an alcoholic.
There were accounts in Dr. William’s book of how he had to go looking for his drunken father in the middle of the night and carry him home on his shoulders. His father made him and his younger brother hustle for money to ultimately help his addiction to alcohol. There were many mistakes that Dr. Williams’s father made; even Dr. Williams himself acknowledges this fact. Yet even through the challenges, the bond that Dr. Williams has with his father is loving and filled with deep respect. When he spoke about his relationship with his alcoholic father on Thursday, he said something that struck me: “He stood by me when no one else did.”
I understand what he means.
I am not an adult child of an alcoholic. But as an adult adoptee, I understand the need for someone to stand by you through thick and thin. The physical presence of a parent is an innate need from infancy, no matter how terrible the parent is or how many mistakes they make. My birth mother and father could not fulfill their parent roles for me so another set of parents took their place. My adoptive father WAS my father. My adoptive mother IS my mother. Why? Because they were there for me throughout my childhood. They raised me the best way they knew how which, I am fortunate to say, was pretty darn blessed.
For someone who has not experienced a separation from a parent (particularly a maternal figure) like Dr. Willliams and I have, it is a heady concept to understand. How can you bond to another adult who is not your flesh and blood? How can you claim to love your parent, who used or manipulated you? It is a testimony to the power of physical presence and permanence in a child’s life. University of Toronto professor of psychology and psychiatry David Wolfe states, “Humans are wired to form social bonds, and such scraps of kindness can deepen even a relationship built on manipulation and abuse.” We are, at our very core, wired to connect with others. We need constancy in our human relationships, which trumps even the worst abuse.
Why do my children love me, no matter how I mess up and fall short of the perfect parent? Because the bottom line is: they need my presence. They need me to be the mom. No matter what kind of mom I am, it is important to stand up for them when no one else does; to be there for them when no one else can.
Physical presence and constancy in relationships cannot be underestimated.