Each month, I send a newsletter sharing what I am reading, thinking, and learning to help catalyze an American society that embraces the extended family in children’s lives. You can subscribe here. Want to join the conversation? Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter.
It was a marathon of a month for our family, with a three-night work trip as my job hosted #pfs4ec, our largest event of the year. There was lots to do in the lead up, including session planning and logistics, but the biggest challenge for me was being away from Baby (okay, Toddler) K for three nights – the longest we’ve been apart.
So it was a trying few days for everyone, logistically and emotionally. Like 1 in 4 American families with a young child, we count on grandparents for child care. It is a joy to see my mother and mother-in-law develop a deep bond with K (and, of course, the financial benefit as child care in NJ costs $9,000 on the low end for a toddler).
But suddenly the grandmas were logging longer days with K, as my husband tried to juggle his own start and end time to relieve them. There were minor medical concerns, of the kind you seem to always experience with a toddler. There were travel delays, the kind that leave you schlepping back from LaGuardia at rush hour when you were supposed to land in Newark.
All to say: the “para-parents” in K’s life, and in ours, continue to make the difference between a life of chaos and a life of positivity. I am tremendously lucky to have our extended family and friends play this role, and this month was a lightning bolt reminder to work towards a broader society that fully embraces the power of extended family.
Beyond the nuclear family in immigration
While three days apart from my child was emotionally draining, it pales in comparison to the abrupt, indefinite separations facing families at our borders. If you already follow me on other social media channels, you know this issue has been my top priority since May. I was proud this weekend to attend the #FamiliesBelongTogether rally in Newark with K in tow, along with mom friends who brought their littles. Holding up a sign, of course, isn’t enough – we all need to be making calls, donating when we can, and raising awareness of the situation still facing families – but I will note that the psychological benefit of being out in the pounding heat with hundreds of others in support of families was huge. I got chills when an 18 wheeler drove by and leaned on his horn the whole block in support of the rally. Toddler K enjoyed that one too.
Less discussed in this complex topic is the specific ways that extended families matter in our immigration policies. This was brought into light in the story of Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, the six-year-old girl held in detention who was recorded asking repeatedly to call her aunt and providing the phone number. While knowing her aunt’s phone number helped staff make contact, it doesn’t provide an easy path forward for the family, according to Pro Publica:
“The aunt said what made the call even more painful was that there was nothing she could do. She and her 9-year-old daughter are seeking asylum in the United States after immigrating here two years ago for the exact same reasons and on the exact same route as her sister and her niece …The aunt said she worried that any attempt to intervene in her niece’s situation would put hers and her daughter’s asylum case at risk…”
Extended family members have been playing a role in the situation for unaccompanied minors since before this administration’s broad policy changes. Previously, unaccompanied minors in the immigration system were teens (and tweens) crossing the border on their own. It was reported earlier this spring that about 1,400 children were “lost” by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (though “lost” may be more of a methodological issue than we’ll get into here), but that many of these minors had been released into the custody of a family sponsor,often a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle already in the U.S.
And yet, extended families are not generally considered families as they cross the border together – a brief from three major immigration advocacy groups explores the implications of family separation on different family types, providing real-life examples. Because Customs & Border Patrol defines a family unit only as parents/legal guardians and their children, “families composed of spouses or partners, adult children, siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents traveling together not only do not receive the designation of a ‘family unit,’ but they would receive no special consideration for the preservation of their family.”
It is difficult to imagine, right now, a proactive vision of family preservation for migrants which takes into account unique structures of families. But as Americans across the county voice our opposition to our current system, we need to push for a system which respects the humanity of all seeking a new life within the U.S. borders, and this means thinking about what families truly look like on the ground.
Filling a Research Gap
I mentioned last month that I’m presenting in September at the Families Learning Conference in Fort Lauderdale (tough assignment, I know!) on extended family engagement in education. When I submitted the proposal, I didn’t already have a slide deck ready to go – in many ways, this is the push I need to get the material researched and together. As I’ve dug in deep on the topic, I wanted to share some early findings with you:
There isn’t a lot out there.
I’m not deterred. An undergrad professor trained me for this very moment, that the lacuna – the hole in the research – is often as important as what the research already tells us. This is an opportunity to figure out what we can learn from existing research to apply to other family members, and push for a new lens through which to consider family engagement.
Reading something I should know about on the topic? Doing something in your own practice that works for families? Drop me a line!