Question: What is normal and how does it define us?

Updated: Mar 21, 2018

I question here both the definition of “normality” and how (regardless of its definition) it defines us (and the health of the children of the world).

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It wasn’t that long ago that I realized my family wasn’t normal; well, normal by societal standards. Or were we?


I grew up in an apartment in suburban New Jersey where it was abnormal if you didn’t see a person of a different race, ethnicity or religion at least 10 times in one day. I went to public school where at least half of my classmates came to know English as a second language and where one of the first boys I found a “crush” for had a different skin color than mine. My parents divorced when I was very little (too young to remember) and so my grandparents brought me to and from school each day so my mom (macro-mom) could work long, hard hours. I spent every other weekend and every other holiday with my dad. Mom and dad each took turns driving me to and from (New Jersey to New York). Some rides were long and hot spent sitting in traffic. Though you’d think I’d remember nothing but the frustrating smell of exhaust fumes and the feel of sticky clothing during times the car air conditioning wasn’t working up to par; what sticks in my memory most – like it was yesterday – are the conversations shared with mom and dad during these trips. It remains particularly clear, through the memories I have, that dad took advantage of this time to teach me about life. He’d teach me serious life lessons and we’d sit in the car listening to music, almost meditatively together, picking out instruments, synchronizing with the latin cowbells while imagining we had our own in the car with us, and making up carseat compatible dance moves.


I spent weekdays eating dishes like eggplant parmesan. As an aside, macro-mom’s mom, my grandma, was the sort of Italian that inherently practiced a “Mediterranean diet” whereby her eggplant parm recipe allowed you to actually taste the eggplant and appreciate the light garnished of only the smallest dash of cheese. This was notably much in contradiction to the eggplant parm normally served at the famous jersey diners that surrounded the neighborhoods we lived in. I spent weekends eating arroz con habicheulas (rice and beans) before dancing off the calories through family salsa and merengue lessons from dad and grandma (dad’s mom). There was one time of year, for each of my years growing up, that the entire family (mom, dad, both families, both grandmas) all ate both eggplant parm and arroz; December. My birthday in December each year gave an excuse, but when the birthday cake came, it was my grandmothers who always cut it together. Why? Well, macro-mom’s mom’s birthday is Christmas Eve and dad’s mom’s birthday is Christmas Day. –Crazy, right?! The universe’s way of showing how fused love can be, blood and marriage certificates aside.


As I got older, macro-mom and I lived as mother and daughter in all the ways needed for me to become the responsible adult I am today (if I do say so myself), but with a healthy mix of “roommate” style moments. My defined “family” only became more diverse when I was blessed to have my step-family (known as “the fam”, which included my sister who makes a better fit with me of sisterhood than even blood relatives could) join my mom’s side and my stepmom marry my dad.


I am further blessed to have even more extended family including each of my aunt and uncle’s life partners. Despite this upbringing, diverse in experiences and loved ones, the most noteworthy piece was that I recall nothing but love amidst it all. My mom and dad always got along as friends, their two families always blended together at family functions and my step family (on either side) meant just as much to me.

I do recall an occasion or two when in the back of my mind it was as if the question, “what isnormal?” came to mind. The first occasion of reflection was during a “sleep-over” at the home of one of my childhood friends. I remember watching her mom clean the house between preparation of our dinner and lunches for the following day and her father coming home to discuss his hard day of work. “Hmm her family is so ‘abnormal’ I thought.” (Ok, no I didn’t think they were ABnormal… But just not what I knew as normal).

Another memory that strikes me occurred when I was sitting on the school bus waiting to take off for our school trip to the sand dunes of Sandy Hook, NJ, (being in only about 4th grade at the time, I was too young to realize this was only about a 20 minute drive away) waiting for my dad (who said he would chaperone) to show up. This was the time before cell phones and no way for me to know that he was caught in traffic. I near cried the whole time, whimpering and refusing to go on the trip without him. The teacher finally comforted me enough by assuring me that she’d find a way for me to talk to my dad soon and so the bus engine revved up. What happened next, I remember like it was yesterday. I saw a man running toward the bus just as the bus started its engine, “DADDY!” I screamed. It was in this moment, when my classmates took a weird stare at me as if to say, “I don’t get it, why was your dad stuck in traffic? Why didn’t you just drive from home together?” – that I realized maybe it wasn’t “normal” that my dad lived so far… nevermind not in my own house. But why was it normal that not one of the “close” dads ever volunteered to chaperone?


When I was a bit older, I had a different sort of realization. A couple of serious relationships (which ended amicably mostly due to physical separation for college or internships) lead me to think about the concept of a relationship and the requirements of lifelong commitment, or marriage. Pondering these societal norms made me question… Maybe, the family I was brought up in was ABnormal afterall?! If my parents were so happy and loving despite divorce, our step families so well integrated without genetics holding us together and my aunt and uncle so happy with their life partners without marriage certificates that were technically legal; why should I believe that marriage is the only option for all couples and/or families? With all the blessings of multiple pairs of parents as I had, why shouldn’t it be normal for others to have more than one pair?


Or… maybe these questions simply reply on one’s definition of the word normal. Does normal mean “most socially acceptable” …or even “most ideal”? Does it suggest “most common or most likely to be found”? Does normal mean “perfect”? Does normal imply “lack of diversity (in family composition, life experiences, etc)”?


In terms of family composition and life experiences by the definition of “most common” – mine are certainly not normal. (I don’t live up to “the norm” in many areas of my life, some of which you may notice by reading other parts of my blog, but not all to be addressed here. Though, while we are at it, let me note that I am more than proud of each of them). The lack of “normality” makes me love my family and my life more. Yea, I’m ok with you calling me and my family “hipster” if you want. My family was cool before TV shows like “The New Normal”, “Modern Family” or even “Full House” were even conceived. 


By this definition of normal based in frequency or commonality, one thing hasn’t changed since I first raised the question of “normality” in my family and life decades ago: it certainly isn’t normal to be surrounded by so, so, so much unconditional love. Children in the U.S. face adversity such as socioeconomic hardship, divorce/separation of parent, death of parent, parent served time in jail, witness to domestic violence, victim of neighborhood violence, lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, lived with someone with alcohol/drug problem, treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity, at astronomical levels (approximately 34,825,978 children nationwide)1,2. Note that 22.6% of US children experience at least two adversities thereby accounting for more than just divorce1,2. I draw your attention to this because I may argue, given my personal story shared here, that divorce/separation of parents may not be so much or an “adversity” for all children (though I may not be in the “norm” here either).


----See “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Too High”: http://acestoohigh.com/ from the National Survey of Children’s Health: http://www.childhealthdata.org/browse/survey/results?q=2614&r=1

I’ll sneak in some health facts here (you know I can’t help it): children who face adversity are more likely to be ill in adulthood and possibly through attainment of inflammatory and metabolically Abnormal states (3). Danese et al 2009. ACEs and Adult Risk Factors for Age-Related Disease. Figure 1.----


Either way you slice the “pie” (pun intended based on the above pie chart), these stats demonstrate something I wish WAS normal: for every child brought into this world to experience unconditional love. Wouldn’t this mean that facing adversity wouldn’t be so impossible? When we have love, family and experience –we have faith to get through it. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t seem to be the reality for many. With so much “common” adversity, does that make it not still “the norm” (if normal were to be defined as “the ideal”) to aim to attain a stress-free upbringing or grant one to our children?


Now, I don’t mean to paint a picture of perfect in my family and my life. We have our adversities, too, but what makes us even more “abnormal” is our ability to tough them out together. In fact, my own question of relationships/marriage is a great example of a tiny adversity (challenge, if you will). I don’t have any reconciliation on my question of relationships and marriage (and who knows, it could change at any time). In fact watching this movie “A.C.O.D.: Adult Children of Divorce” didn’t help too much:

However, luckily, I am blessed to say that my parents are the polar opposite of those depicted here and so, if I find the sort of love my family has — in any form – does it matter what the definition of the relationship or the existence of the one (if any) I am so blessed to experience the rest of my life?


As with most of my articles, let’s bring this full circle: So this afternoon I asked my mom to seek out some of my old drawings and family photos to include in this post (as you see throughout). When I explained the purpose she mentioned how she coincidentally had a dream about our family last night including my dad! She woke up thinking how ABnormal this was and realized it just so happened that the date is April 13th, the (would be) anniversary of my parent’s marriage. Mind you, I had already written this post days ago for no other reason then because I had recently watched the movie A.C.O.D. I mentioned above (sort of forgot about the whole anniversary thing). Now how’s that for full circle?


I offer here both a question of “normality” and a question of (regardless of its definition) how it defines us. In other words, just because a situation is or isn’t defined as normal, are we any less responsible to do our do diligence to our own family, to ourselves and to our fellow humans in offering support and love in any way we can? Is it possible that with a little more love and support there might be a little less adversity all-around making for just a little bit of a healthier world?


So, I pose to you… what is normal and how does it define us?

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References

1 ACEs Too High: http://acestoohigh.com/

2 National Survey of Children’s Health: Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health (A product of the child and adolescent health measurement initiative): http://www.childhealthdata.org/learn/NSCH with survey of interest at: http://www.childhealthdata.org/browse/survey/results?q=2614&r=1

3 Danese et al. Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Risk Factors for AgeRelated Disease: Depression, Inflammation, and Clustering of Metabolic Risk Markers. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med (JAMA Pediatrics). Dec 2009; 163(12): 1135-1143. doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.214. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560401/)

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