We used to hide our family shame.
I live near the county grounds in Wauwatosa, which used to be the home of many a family shame. The teenage daughter who got pregnant got shipped out to the country to “visit family.” The child with mental illness permanently stayed out of the family’s way as a ward of the state. Even the old soccer field my kids used to play on – it was determined to be an unmarked cemetery for the destitute who died in the county without a family to bury them.
One needs not look any further than the vaunted Kennedy clan and Rose Marie (Rosemary), their daughter who was born with cognitive issues and was sent away to live here in Wisconsin, far from the family.
We hid or buried our shame. After all, these failures in the genetic strain must be our fault – no?
The mistakes from a passion unbridled and out of wedlock had to be hidden to prevent tarnishing the family reputation. And when a family is in business together, having developed a legacy, the effort to hide the truth from others often alienates and strains, exacerbating the family shame.
But what of the family that doesn’t look upon mental illness, physical abnormalities or errors in judgment as something to be covered up? What of the families that love and embrace all the family regardless of the challenges? The human capital expended to keep a family secret quiet is enormous, to say nothing of the financial largess required to cover tracks. So why do we do it?
In my studies of families and family businesses, I have learned it isn’t to hide the entity from others as much as it is to protect the ego from a constant reminder.
When a child is born with a defect, all too often the first thought is: “What did I do wrong?” The answer, quite often, is nothing. Regardless, the same part of the brain that pushed our children to excel at things, not for them, but for our own ego, is the part of the brain that is bruised when that child faces challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in November of 2015 a missive declaring autism is on the rise and they don’t know why. Having worked in a university, it was curious to me that so many of our professors and administrators had children with some form of broad spectrum autism. In my own family, the instances of ADD or ADHD are statistically more than the norm. So what do we do?
Embrace it! Years ago, I was talking with well-known Jesuit priest Father Gene Jakubek. He told me once, and most emphatically, that when faced with these challenges, I should pray “for a stronger back, not a lighter cross!” Reflecting on the challenges those around me have with children that are not “normal,” I wonder if these children were given to these families because they had the means and knowledge to handle the challenge? If that is true, then we really do a disservice to that child to dismiss him or her summarily. Most children, regardless of their cognitive challenges, can learn to do things, and this includes in the family business. There are community services available to assist families in need – one such service being The Threshold in West Bend – from which I have personally seen some amazing results. Integration into the family, rather than being ostracized, seems to be the balm which is needed.
Tell me – which family is better? The family that has a daughter who gets pregnant and can’t physically or financially care for that child, and after adoption the parents of the birth mother maintain ties to the child with the approval of the adoptive family; or the family that has a son with depression issues, and sends that child out of state because they can’t handle him any longer?
The family that boldly circles the wagons and embraces the challenges is the one most likely to end up with success and frankly, external affirmation. Rather than seeing our children as an extension of our ego, we need to view them as a vitally important and necessary part of the whole. The family and family business which embraces the challenge and vows to stay together through thick and thin – that is the family to be heralded.
It isn’t easy and sometimes it is impossible. But the family that keeps all the members in the frame is the one that rises above any shame.
-David Borst, Ed.D., is executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute, a regional resource hub for family business. He can be reached at email@example.com.