Until recently, I’ve had a big problem with the word “gratitude.” I didn’t like it; I didn’t want to use it; and I certainly wasn’t going to say that I’m grateful to my parents for feeding me, housing me, clothing me, and basically doing what parents should.
It’s not that I wasn’t not appreciative, both for what I have and for everything my parents have done for me; I just didn’t want to say I was grateful. And I think my refusal to use the word comes from reading the children’s book Gratefully Yours. As I remember it, the protagonist is a little girl from a long time ago who was sent on an “orphan train” to be placed with a family out west. She was continually told to be “grateful” to the people who took her in because they fed and sheltered her (the implication being that they didn’t have to do so, and if they hadn’t, it’s possible no one would have). While the book ended happily, with the girl becoming a part of the family and not just some awkward combination of servant and charitable duty, the idea of gratitude ended up branded in my mind as being associated with charity and being required to be thankful for something beyond what you deserve.
To me, the idea of being grateful for what my parents have provided for me was a message that they were going beyond what is expected or required of them, that because I’m adopted, I was somehow lesser than a biological child. No, I wasn’t grateful that my parents feed, clothe, and shelter me — that’s what parents are supposed to do! Children deserve that much at least! Just because they chose me — just because I’m not their flesh and blood — didn’t make it any less their responsibility to care for me. I’m not some charity case: I’m their kid. I shouldn’t have to be grateful for what every child should be able to take for granted.* The idea that I should be grateful to my parents for “saving me from the life I would otherwise have had” (at some orphanage in Korea)** was repugnant to me.
However, in the past year or so — possibly even less — I’ve reevaluated my stance on the idea of gratitude. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still absolutely not going to act as though my parents taking care of me is more laudable in terms of charity than any other parents caring for any of their children. But I’m learning to separate the “giving thanks” aspect of gratitude from the more negative “this is more than you deserve” connotations that it once held for me.
On the last day of 2010, I posted about things, and people, for which I am grateful. It was, I believe, the first time I’ve seriously acknowledged my own gratitude (I say “seriously” to discount the times I may have said things such as “I’m so grateful we don’t have school tomorrow” or “I’m so grateful that pop quiz was cancelled”). It came about largely because I was so overwhelmingly thankful for how my parents have handled (and are handling) coming to terms with me being trans — what that means for me, for them, for both my and our futures. Their attitudes have been so above-and-beyond what so many trans- and genderqueer-identified people can expect that I couldn’t help but use the word grateful (which isn’t, by the way, to imply that all people don’t deserve that kind of support and acceptance).
It’s a slow process, but I’m learning that being grateful for what I have doesn’t imply that it’s more than I deserve. It simply means acknowledging my thanks and appreciation.
*I’m not arguing that people should grow up being unappreciative of what they have or unaware that other people have less. I think it’s good for children to realize that, while they may have things like warm shelter and good food, others do not. However, I find it heartbreaking that there are children who know how appreciative people should be for such things because they, themselves, lack it. I don’t believe children should have to think about where the next meal is coming from, or how the next month’s rent is being paid (or experience what it’s like to not have housing of their own), or whether they can afford to replace their clothing as it wears out or is outgrown. (For that matter, I think no one should have to worry about any of that, but especially not children.)
**In the interest of full disclosure, I should state I’m not certain anymore whether that sort of message was one I actually heard from someone or just the product of my often overactive (and overly indignant) imagination. I can say with absolute certainty, however, that I never heard it from my parents. My parents have never, ever even implied (and never would) that I owe them something because they adopted me and gave me all of the advantages I now enjoy: once again, they’re my parents, and I’m their child, and that’s really all there is to it.