Stitching Together the Patchwork Family® – Interview with Barbara Carnal


This interview was from the January-February 2007 Issue of Homiletics

The Family Connections program was developed over a number of years by Barbara Carnal, a licensed professional counselor specializing in family life, and a parent of birth, step-, foster and adopted children.

Barbara serves as an ordained deacon at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where she has also been involved as a leader in the Stephen Ministry and a small-group leader for the Monday Morning Grace group.

She is a member of the board of directors of First Steps of Jasper County, South Carolina, an early childhood initiative, and of the Institute at Palm Key, an educational nonprofit organization. She is a member of the American Counseling Association, the American Association of Christian Counselors, the National Wellness Institute and the National Speaker’s Association.

Barbara earned a bachelor of arts degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

As the parent of “variously accumulated” children, Barbara combines her family experience with professional education and practice, and her strong Christian witness to present this positive program for strengthening families.

We first met with Barbara at her home in South Carolina, and concluded the conversation with follow-up e-mails. Since Barbara’s ministry involves strengthening families, we were interested in her own family background, so that’s where the conversation started.

HOMILETICS: You work with families, so I assume you have a child or children of your own.

CARNAL: When I am asked how many children I have, I often get a glazed-over look on my face and stammer, “I’m not sure.” It’s not a memory lapse, but acknowledgement of my multifaceted parenting experience. I want to express my deep gratitude to all the children who have come into my life for whatever reason. Children stir my soul.

There’s my son, Chris, my firstborn child, and his wife, Amanda, and their young daughters. Then my daughter, Melissa, who arrived as a tiny package only 11 days old to be the answer to my prayers and my best friend in the entire world. And there’s my daughter, Angie, and her daughter, and Mike and Derek and Clay, three young men who spent different years as my “sons” and will always hold a place in my heart. Their stories of survival are profound.

HOMILETICS: So it sounds as though you didn’t have, or don’t have a conventional or traditional family yourself, but a blended family—

CARNAL: —Well, actually my family never “blended.” In fact, I have a hard time with that term. Many people think it sets up an impossible goal. Then they feel guilty when they fail to achieve “blending.” If you’re in a family where there are children from a previous marriage, or children who’ve been adopted, and if you try to “blend” them together into this mix you call your family, what “blend” are you trying to achieve?

HOMILETICS: You’re trying to achieve unity, harmony, some sense of homogeneity that makes it possible for the family to function.

CARNAL: That sounds good! So why is it, then, so incredibly difficult to “blend” a family together? Children are going to have a hard time being “blended.” It implies that they’ve got to become someone or something they aren’t.

What does “blending” mean, anyway? Think of a recipe. You mix the ingredients so that the original characteristics of each are combined to form something new. Some combinations work easily, while others resist, like oil and water.

Here’s something to think about: A preschool teacher mixed oil and water and blue food coloring in a glass jar as she prepared to make homemade modeling clay. Some of the children noticed the bubbles that were created as the teacher shook the bottle. Recognizing a creative moment of learning, she sat with the children to watch the bubbles rise. What else occurred? The oil rose to the top and separated from the water. The ingredients just wouldn’t blend. Like many families, no matter how hard a mixture is shaken, the individual parts separate themselves out.

HOMILETICS: So if you’re not blending the family, then what are you doing?

CARNAL: I’m talking about acceptance. My own parenting experience includes what I call “variously accumulated” children who came along by birth, foster care, adoption, stepparenting, temporary guardianship. So, believe me, I’m not denying problems that come along in family situations. But I learned something wonderful from these children and from the many client families who entered my office over the years.

It’s out of these experiences that I’ve come to see that “blending” is not a particularly useful metaphor. Instead, I see families as a beautiful, radiant and inclusive patchwork quilt, made up of a number of carefully collected pieces stitched together to form a unique unit: the Patchwork Family®.

This metaphor is built into the Family Connections program as a way of describing how I advocate both “celebrating the individual” and “strengthening the family.” This concept recognizes that families are a gift from God. However, in today’s world, there are many definitions of “family.” My own multigenerational family is described, along with a high percentage of other families, as “nontraditional.”

I loved parenting my birth son. Then after my Rh negative blood caused two stillbirths near full term, we adopted a beautiful 11-day-old little girl. And our family became “nontraditional.” We had a busy, active life. A 12-year-old boy was placed with us for adoption, but that disrupted after six months and he went on to live in a children’s home. I began to question both my expectations and the prescribed attempts to “blend” children into new families.

Several years later, my clear “aha” moment came along with the adoption of our youngest daughter, and there’s where the Patchwork Family concept and Family Connections program were born.

HOMILETICS: So like a lot of families, there was some conflict before you started to rethink or revisit your assumptions about what a family should look like.

CARNAL: Amy was almost 8 years old when she was delivered, sight-unseen, to be a part of our family. Local social services workers had requested a quick transfer from Amy’s second foster home, and she moved in without the usual series of visitations. My family held high hopes for a loving, happy future with this second adopted child. In fact, the future was so idealized that I clearly remember the conversation in which I corrected Amy’s memory of her foster grandmother. I told her that that person was no longer her grandmother; that in our family we had our own grandmothers and they were her grandmothers now, too. But, something really didn’t feel right about saying those words.

In prayer later that night, I asked God for help in understanding how to parent this child who had already had three other mothers. My desire to erase the pain and confusion of Amy’s early years was also erasing Amy. The answer to my prayer came in the form of understanding that, of course, this beautiful young girl was not born on the day of her arrival at our home. Her life history, good and bad, was her life history. Her whole self and story needed to come with her into her forever family.

I began to speak with Amy about the many people who had been part of her early life. Amy drew a picture of her families, and then one of herself in her new family. This was not a therapeutic tool for uncovering problems or a means by which our family would be compared in any way to the others. It was simply and profoundly a visual statement of acceptance and transition. “Celebrating the Individual …” begins with acknowledging the whole person.

HOMILETICS: That just makes such complete sense, it’s strange that it’s so hard to come to that conclusion.

CARNAL: When individuals are recognized and validated, meaningful connections with other family members can be made. “… Strengthening the Family” is the mission of the Family Connections program. In a world that offers great distractions from the family unit, I choose to focus on our human need to belong, to love and be loved. Family Connections creates an environment for understanding the inner peace and interpersonal peace available through faith in Jesus Christ.

HOMILETICS: So is the nuclear family, or traditional family, a dinosaur these days?

CARNAL: Certainly not a dinosaur in the sense that it’s dead and no longer a healthy model. But many families today are made up of adults and stepchildren, birth children, adopted children and various combinations of these complicated relationships. Perhaps as many as 75 percent of families in our country no longer fit the traditional model.

HOMILETICS: So it’s not particularly useful to keep referencing the so-called “traditional” family?

CARNAL: Exactly! How can we understand, on the one hand, that 75 percent of families are not this nuclear family you’re talking about and yet, on the other hand, keep talking about expectations of what a family “should” look or act like? Don’t you think our expectations are influenced by the use of negative terms, such as “non-traditional” or “dys-functional” or “un-blended,” to describe any group of people that is not a mother-father-child(ren)-born-to-them group? All these negative terms make such families seem less desirable. Can we honestly make that judgment? Do we want to say that 75 percent of families are less desirable? What if a “traditional” family is experiencing problems? That’s why we need to consider a new metaphor and a new definition of the family to replace those negative labels.

HOMILETICS: So what does this family look like?

CARNAL: Picture a cozy, soft patchwork quilt made of separate pieces of fabric carefully collected and stitched together. In a Patchwork Family, we see the family members as individual patches in the patchwork quilt, and we focus on respect for each member’s unique self and story (described as a “patch”) while creating or repairing the connections (described as the “threads”) that define the family as a whole.

In this concept of family, you bring your whole self and your whole story, and you don’t have to tear off a piece of your “patch” to be stitched in. The entire definition of nontraditional families as “blended” is a misnomer. You don’t have to “blend.”

HOMILETICS: This family, then, is made up of patches and held together by threads.

CARNAL: Right.

HOMILETICS: But the patches aren’t all of the same cloth?

CARNAL: Right again.

HOMILETICS: So what do these “patches” look like?

CARNAL: You’re really asking, “What does my patch look like?” Who am I? What are my specialties? What are my interests? What do I like and not like?

HOMILETICS: As you can see there’s no thatch on my patch, and it’s getting a bit decrepit and worn and used.

CARNAL: Not at all! Here’s what you do to create your own patch.

Using an individual piece of paper, or a specially created “patch,” put your first name in the center. Then in the surrounding space, make notations about your life history and about you as a person. For example: Perhaps you’re musical, you like to read crime novels, you’re incredibly persistent — when there’s a problem, you sink your teeth into it and won’t let go, you love the ocean, I understand, you enjoy people but crave long periods of solitude. Whatever. Write it all down around your name which you’ve placed in the center of the page.

Take time as you create your own patch. Don’t ask others for their opinions because this is just for you. Anything is okay, as long as it is authentic for this description of you. A young child with new sneakers will eagerly describe being a fast runner. A teen may be more inclined to say he or she is a good friend. And adults, who often have the greatest difficulty in acknowledging a patch-full of positives, might ponder, “What are my survivor qualities?” Remember that you can come back and add more if you think of something later on.

HOMILETICS: And each family member does this?

CARNAL: Right. If there are problems in the dynamics of the family, this exercise is the beginning of a new level of healing. In nontraditional families, there are usually some people who have chosen relationship changes, and others who have not. That’s difficult! It is easier than ever to get caught up in negatives when you are one of those who has not chosen change. While parents of step- or adopted children generally try to create a loving support system that will move beyond past problems, they may try to avoid mention of the past, and to say, “You’re part of this family now. Forget the past. We do things this way.” If children feel that a former life experience is devalued, they will see little sense in trying to connect with a new family. They may guard themselves emotionally from the potential pain of future separation. The apostle Paul wrote: Love is not illmannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs.

HOMILETICS: So this patch is a snapshot of who I am.

CARNAL: Yes, you identify what it is about you that goes with you every day, no matter what happens: your whole self and your whole story, your “patch.” In designing individual patches, we’re opening the door to recognition of those unique qualities that each family member brings to relationships. Diversity is not only accepted but celebrated as families learn to see each member as a special contributor.

HOMILETICS: The family, then, is made up of these unique “patches,” but how do we bring these patches together?

CARNAL: Good question, but just think of a quilt. How are patches in a quilt brought together or connected?

HOMILETICS: You’re asking me? [laughter] You do some sewing?

CARNAL: Stitching, yes. And what do we use for stitching? Threads.

HOMILETICS: And you see these “threads” as being … ?

CARNAL: One of the threads that holds the patchwork family quilt together is leadership, loving parental leadership that provides a sense of security for the family and is the source of overall guidance within the family.

Guidance is necessary to the growth of children in a family. When a child learns how to participate in the family and society, then security develops. If you know what’s expected and what the rules are, you can more easily choose behavior that gains approval. Security comes from that knowing. Without loving parental leadership, a family lacks a sense of guidance and safety. Maybe the children take charge with demands and oppositional behavior. The “stitching” in any case becomes weak and worn.

HOMILETICS: But many of the families we’re talking about may have only one parent in this leadership role, right?

CARNAL: There may be only one parent or adult in the home and that person may be a grandparent. Or, in the case of a divorce, perhaps there’s joint custody. There’s a great deal of confusion in some nontraditional families as to who really is the leader. Sometimes the court makes the decision. And sometimes children take over leadership when the adults forget how important this thread of guidance and security is. A family can easily fall apart when there is a struggle over leadership or when leadership is lacking.

If the thread of guidance and security is frayed and in need of repair, then who will step into the leadership role? In our society, this is the danger zone when many people step in to assume control. When parents do not, or cannot, function as leaders, there is often some evidence of dysfunction in the appearance or behavior of the children. It may be subtle or it may be quite obvious.

HOMILETICS: So how should we work with families when there is a leadership crisis?

CARNAL: It’s important here to remember our faith, and to look to Jesus as a leader whose primary interest was in “discipling” others. For Christians, discipleship offers a model for family leadership. Christ is not only a model leader, but he also empowers disciples to lead others.

Likewise, family leaders are teachers who provide both guidance and safety within faith-based boundaries.

So when we ask, “Who’s the boss?” we’re not just trying to find out who is in control. We’re looking for the disciple leader. At times control is usurped by even the youngest child whose tantrums keep everyone from enjoying a family outing. Often young teens seek control by testing the rules of the home. If being a family leader only means being in control, then the concept of discipleship is missing, and the threads of connection become frayed and weak.

HOMILETICS: So families are at risk when there’s no apparent leader to provide guidance and support?

CARNAL: Yes, but let’s not look at these families as families that need to be “fixed.” Positive family leadership creates family strengthening. The family leaders take on their job of raising children with the knowledge that this is about much more than fixing what is wrong with them. It can be really frustrating for families when they are perceived as being really troubled. That stigma often keeps families from seeking help.

Rather, let’s turn that around to change the troubled family label to that of a good family that has been experiencing some problems.

HOMILETICS: What are some other “threads” that stitch the family together?

CARNAL: Communication. How do we connect with each other if not by face-to-face conversation? Our electronic technology offers some other solutions with cell phones, instant messaging and e-mail. Even good old-fashioned stamped, written letters are connectors.

But most of these means don’t create a sense of listening and responding. Listening is different from hearing and unfortunately, not enough listening happens in families that are going through a troubled period.

This is hard enough in traditional families, but compounded in nontraditional families as people from different backgrounds are “stitched” into the family quilt. As families regroup by second marriage, by adding adopted or foster children, or even by grandparents parenting grandchildren, there are many levels of adjustment that need to take place for communication to be successful. Not only are there new voices, but also new non-verbal messages to get used to.

HOMILETICS: I’ll bet you’ve got some ideas about how to help a family communicate better!

CARNAL: Of course! The important thing is to encourage clear and honest communication.

One exercise that’s in the book is the “Family Connections Feelings Expression.” This involves four distinctively different crayons or colored markers. Four “feeling” words are chosen, either by individual participants or by the group as a whole. These words are written at the top of the page and one color is assigned to each feelings word. I won’t go into the details here, but this exercise helps the family to understand clearly where everyone is at on at least an emotional level.

Another device is the “Family Journal Writing” exercise. This is a book to be kept in a location so that family members can easily access it to post or write entries. The journal rules explain confidentiality and also how to request a response. There needs to be a regular family meeting so that family members can review what they’ve written and pay attention to any rising concerns.

HOMILETICS: Those family review meetings could get lively!

CARNAL: Absolutely, but if that’s happening, you might consider using a “talking stick.” This doesn’t actually have to be a “stick,” but any designated item that is passed among the family members who are communicating in person. Whoever is holding the talking stick is the one who has permission to speak. For young children, a soft toy or beanbag works well. Remember that the idea of passing this object is to develop respect for the speaker and to also identify who should be listening!

HOMILETICS: Another “thread”?

CARNAL: Well, there are a number of other threads that hold a family together. Tradition is important. It might be as simple as having pizza and playing games on Friday nights. Or going to Grandma’s house on Christmas. Or the family mealtime. And of course, new traditions can be developed.

Service activities are important, too. Families are healthier when they’ve found a way to give back to society.

HOMILETICS: Let’s talk more about the family meal. Why is it important?

CARNAL: Togetherness is important. The suggestion that quality time can replace quantity of time is misinterpreted to mean that if we watch television in the same room, then that is “togetherness.” Mere physical presence doesn’t equate to quality time. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the family meal — a shared meal — has almost disappeared in some families.

The sharing, of course, includes much more than the food itself. We excuse the lack of this event in our family life by saying that our busy schedules keep us from all showing up at the same time on any night. Well, what about breakfast time? Commercials on television show Mom, Dad and the kids running out of the house in the morning with food in their hands, too busy or too late to even sit down for a minute. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so true to life.

Here’s a recommendation. Find a day when the family can arrange their schedules to meet at the dinner table together, even if it’s once a week. This time will be a priority for everyone. Set new traditions if this is an unusual occurrence for your family. Young children can decorate paper placemats or even help make a salad or dessert. Begin with a blessing or prayer.

HOMILETICS: Hold hands?

CARNAL: Sure, and don’t be afraid to talk about manners. Table manners taught at an early age create a natural comfort zone for social occasions. New family members who do not share the same manners can be positively encouraged to join in. The key is “positively.” Knowing what is expected will ease the way for newcomers. What happens at the family meal is much more important that you think.

When I moved from the family home to a small townhouse, every one of the children supported the plan. But each separately asked, “You aren’t going to get rid of the dining room table, are you?” I was genuinely surprised. But I decided that it was symbolic of all those close family times, and that if it meant that much to my children I would keep it even if they only visited a couple of times a year. Now my older daughter is setting up her home, and the table will move on for the next generation to sit around to tell stories and create family tradition.

HOMILETICS: But the family meal or shared meal is only one option for creating togetherness.

CARNAL: Of course. Families used to play board games or take bike rides together, didn’t they? The important thing is that togetherness can also be a base for family problem-solving.

Here’s a tradition that can create a very positive environment for you and will validate each person: Hold a family meeting. Present the problem and tell everyone that all potential resolutions will be considered. Make a list that everyone can see. You can even add some “magic wand” solutions in the first round. (What wish would you make if you had a magic wand?) Of course, after listening to all ideas and asking for mutual agreement, the family leader has the final say.

HOMILETICS: You’re really a strong advocate for families!

CARNAL: Families should be celebrated! Especially those who are able to bring their individual “patches” and stitch them together in a brilliantly colored quilt — it’s just something beautiful to behold.

HOMILETICS: But no family is perfect.

CARNAL: Not at all. Things are going to go wrong. Not everything is going to be good or right all the time. So what do we do? Gloss over our problems or difficulties?

What good are mistakes if we don’t learn from them? It seems such a simple lesson, but it’s one we often forget. What if we avoided anything that might not turn out right?

That’s why I called the mistakes we make as we struggle and grow as families — glorious imperfections! They’re opportunities for learning.

Let me give you an example: On school days, the morning rush became more and more frustrating for me as a mother of two adopted daughters who were both in middle school. Each one tried to out-do the other with her clothing choices and general appearance. “Mom, how do I look today?” became a loaded question every day. Any criticism set off an argument, it seemed. So I chose to point out only the occasional unacceptable choice, such as a too-short skirt, and otherwise my reply was, “I think you look perfectly wonderful.”

This tactic seemed to work, or at least it got me out of the center of the early- morning competition. And truly, I did think that my two daughters were beautiful. I liked providing the compliments. It wasn’t until years later that my girls finally told me how frustrating that universal wonderful response was. Of course, the praise felt good. But the girls admitted that they had to turn to each other and to friends at school for what they called an honest critique. They really wanted a realistic response.

Acknowledging imperfection shows that we believe God accepts us as we are. It gives us room for improvement. If we seek God’s presence in our lives, we can acknowledge our mistakes so we can learn from them. In fact, it may be imperfection that lets God in.

HOMILETICS: So we’re all in process.

CARNAL: We’re all in process. We’re human beings in process. And we don’t have to figure it out by ourselves. By connecting our patches, we’re not alone in the world. There’s great power in loving one another in our families. As we grow in understanding the threads that connect our patches, we can see that improved communication makes a big difference. Acknowledging old and new traditions creates a sense of identity for our family experience. And identifying opportunities for the family to reach out to serve the community adds to our bond.

HOMILETICS: This model of the patchwork quilt works well for the church, too.

CARNAL: Absolutely! What is the church if it’s not a family living in faith? In the Family Connections program, we focus on the acceptance of each and every member of the family as a unique and special contributor to the identity and working of the family as a whole. So you can see that the Family Connections model is really based on a biblical model.

In the family of God we can accept differences by acknowledging that each one of us is a unique child of God. With self-acceptance comes tolerance and appreciation of the differences in others. To create a family grouping, then, the patches don’t have to be altered or “blended,” but instead joined carefully with various “threads” that strengthen and define the family. “Knitted together,” I think is how the apostle Paul puts it.

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