Imagine your life if you lived knowing you belong in all the groups that matter. How awesome would it be to always feel worthy of belonging without trying to be someone you’re not? Perhaps even more important, how can we give unconditional belonging to our own children?
Providing children with unconditional belonging is trickier than it seems. In absence of active, purposeful messaging children will make up a story questioning their own worthiness and value.
“What matters is the message our kids receive, not the one we think we’re sending.” ~ Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
As a quiet, introspective child I filled in gaps of unspoken words with the belief I didn’t belong. In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown’s feelings mirror mine, “Feeling like I never truly belonged anywhere was my greatest pain, a personal suffering that threaded through most of my pre-adult life.”
My childhood was unusual for the 1960 – 70s. I am the only child of divorced parents which made the question, ‘Do you have any siblings?’ difficult to answer.
In first grade, I shuffled between three family structures: 1) My primary family including my mom, step-dad, and little sister where I lived 80% of the time. 2) My dad’s family with two stepmothers (not at the same time), a step-brother, and an even younger sister. 3) My extended family members from all sides comprising grandmas and aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Are you still with me? Bouncing between families gave me moments of belonging, but no clear foundation in which to grow roots. During the best moments, I knew my family loved me and did their best to parent well. Still, as the sands continued to shift throughout the years, I often felt like an outsider having to prove my value and place at the table.
Through it all, though, my dad always reminded me, “You’re a Barrow kid.” It’s taken me decades to unpack the meaning behind those words.
My dad, Frankie Gene, and his eight siblings grew up in Arkansas, smack dab during the depression. Times were hard. They were always short of food. Shoes were handed down from sibling to sibling, considering themselves lucky when they had a pair that fit with no holes.
The Barrows were a sharecropping family who moved from farm to farm following the harvest. They’d load up in a flatbed truck with what few possessions they had, including their dog Pluto, and follow the work. Any kid old enough to pick cotton worked. They dedicated all available hours outside of school to earning money, growing, raising, and cooking their own food.
At 18 years old, Frankie was one of the few siblings who left Arkansas. The Navy brought him to San Diego where he, my youngest sister and I remain today. Growing up, I had few opportunities to visit my extended Barrow family. Though, my Grandma Eula and I exchanged letters for years. And I gladly celebrated a few Thanksgivings at my Aunt Maxine’s in Bakersfield, CA.
In the brief times I spent with them, I admired the Barrow’s obvious shared pride and commitment to each other. Steeped in southern tradition and values, blood is always thicker than water for all family members.
After spending time with my Barrow family as an adult, I feel more connected to my deep southern roots. When I enter the room of any family event, or even post on social media, there are the Barrows repeating, “you’re a Barrow kid”—perhaps not in those exact words, but the meaning is there. My uncle Jimmy texts whenever he hears of a So-Cal earthquake and also to remind me of how I’m missing out on cathead biscuits. This is active messaging.
I see now how I am one of them, not because of anything I’ve done, but because I am family and therefore I belong. There are no conditions and no way to sever the ties.
My story now sings of picking cotton, fried okra, inside jokes about family coups and watermelon fights, and stories of how the Barrow kids grew into a strong, connected family across generations and geography.
If I were to parent my own children again, I would make sure they know their extended family in a deeper way and purposefully tell them they belong. Mostly, though, I would tell them they are Barrow kids and make sure they understood what that means.
I wish I knew years ago, but since I know better now, I’ll do better. After all, I’m a Barrow kid.