Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Non-Traditional Family... a.k.a. For Papi

This post is dedicated to Papi.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but every time I started, some friend or other of mine would end up in a relationship circumstance that would make this post seem like a response to their situation. Like, “oh, this is happening to her, so I’ll write this post to let her know what I think she should do.” There is a new wrinkle now, however, that is forcing pen to paper – or fingers to the keyboard – in an effort to beat the clock. So to any of my friends reading this who may be going through relationship strife… this is not about you. As far as you know.

Now that that’s out of the way…

I’ve been involved in several conversations over the last couple of years where a friend or other of mine will declare, directly or indirectly, that the core family unit is not to be messed with, no matter what. The underlying – or sometimes out loud in your face oh my gosh couldn’t be more blatant – message is that retaining the core family – the two original parents plus child(ren) – is critical to the wellbeing of the child(ren) and outweighs all else. Don’t get me wrong with what I’m about to say, because I value that this family unit can provide a great foundation for the children, a trusting, stable place of growth and love. Absolutely. But to the idea that this outweighs all other considerations, I have one word: bollocks.

This is not the point where I go on a philosophical rant about my views on relationships or on the resilience of children. Rather, I want to share with you something precious and special about my family that hopefully will simply highlight my perspective on the matter.

When I was two years old, my parents divorced. By the time I turned four, I had a stepmom. And before I turned nine, I also had a stepfather. In the mix, I ended up with a stepsister, three half-sisters and a huge extended family. Oh, and my cousin moved in with us when she and I were fourteen, so she’s also like another sister. My family tree is more like a family mobile. My sister – the stepsister, if you’re trying to keep track – and I used to joke that we’d know we’d met our eventual husbands when we found men willing to learn the complex relationships within our family… or simply willing to learn who is who.

Sidebar about the few brave men who dated my sister and me seriously: Back when we were single gals, my stepfather had an interesting method of sorting out whether a new boyfriend of ours was worthy enough to stick around. Upon meeting a young man she or I brought home to meet “the parents,” my stepfather would ask, “So, you’re the young man sleeping with my daughter?” And then he would sit back and gauge the reply. A reply was required. No escaping it. Poor boys. I think my favorite to this day came from my now-ex-husband: “Better me than you.”

When I look back at my childhood and the years since, one thing is glaringly missing from my youth: animosity between or from my parents. And by “my parents” I mean all four of the adults who dedicated their energy and time and love and support to raising my sisters and me. Think about that for a moment. So often we hear about the struggles and trials of divorce and remarriage, how it’s so painful for everyone, especially the children. And in many cases, it is tremendously difficult. But I am not exaggerating when I say that I cannot remember a moment in time when I truly felt any envy or jealousy or bitterness pass between my parents.

Of course it couldn’t have been easy at first. Any divorce is difficult, even the ones that “need” to happen. Throw a child into the mix, and it’s a thousand times harder. But from what I understand – and yes, I did ask a ton of questions one evening at the ripe old age of twenty-two – my parents agreed pretty much from the get-go that they weren’t going to make this a pissing match, to argue over a marriage that truly needed to end for the sake of salvaging their friendship, but rather would focus on what was important. And to them, what was important was me.

It’s funny, I can’t imagine my parents as a married couple because they are so different from one another in so many ways. But they do have their similarities, and one of those is that they have always told me the same thing about one another, as long as I can recall, whether they know it or not. They tell me that they love each other very much but just couldn’t be married to each other. And knowing them as I do – I am their daughter, after all – I believe they are able to be the good friends they are now because they didn’t force the issue and try to stay together for my sake.

It’s one thing for an intelligent, caring couple to keep things civil, or even tender, during a divorce, but often the second marriage brings its own dynamic.  I have a few very vague memories of the apartment where I lived with my mom and dad, but in all honesty I don’t remember a time when my stepmom was not my stepmom. I don’t remember awkwardly sorting out what our relationship would be. I don’t remember being made to feel like I was invading her space. And I definitely don’t remember ever feeling anything but loved by her. She eventually had her own three little girls, my baby sisters, and while I didn’t get to grow up with them, I never felt like an outsider or second-class daughter, thanks to my dad and stepmom.

Now when my stepfather came into the picture, I was much older, being the ripe old age of eight, and quite settled into the idea that the living arrangement would include my mom and me until I left for college. Along came this man and his bratty daughter, and we were supposed to make room for them in our house and give them towels to use in the bathroom and let them help decide what we ate. Not only that, but this man wanted to enforce rules, rules I already generally followed of course, being the rule follower that I was, but still, he felt it was okay to help keep me in line. And at first, I resisted. A lot.

But then, well… it took a while for me to get it, but I realized that he wasn’t being a jerk, he was being a dad. And he really cared. A lot. He referred to my sister and me as his daughters, with an “s” at the end, and he and my mom worked hard to ensure everything was fair between us. They kind of went overboard about it the first couple of years. For instance, they were so “fair” with our Christmas gifts during those first years that we figured out the parents were Santa when my mom forgot to put out one of my presents. When my sister received one gift more than I, and the rest of our gifts were sitting side by side under the tree like they’d just come off some Noah’s Ark for presents, the look of panic on my mom’s face told the whole story. Well, that and she ran to get the gift and made a joke about how we were figuring out the whole Santa thing already.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that my four parents and four sisters always felt just like that – four parents and four sisters. The “step” and “half” of all of it didn’t seem to matter much.

And that held for the extended families as well. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. Everyone treated me as family. Right from the start. I have so many memories of my aunt playing with me at the beach in Key Biscayne, or following Papi around thinking he was the most awe-inspiring and funny man the world had ever invented. Not only did they play with me and take care of me, they made me feel special and safe and loved. I could bore you for hours, but I will be kind.  The point is that looking back, I cannot be more grateful for how quickly and completely they embraced me. I honestly have to think about it if I’m asked whether a particular family member is a blood relation or someone I’m tied to due to my parents’ second marriages. I don’t think about them as “stepfamily” members. They’re simply my family.

You see, it can happen that the traditional core family can be an incredible factor in a child’s life, if you’re lucky enough to have a family like that. But to say that this core family is the end all be all and that nothing else can match its impact is so narrow and doesn’t allow for the complexity of families and people and children and love. Sometimes love works in a different way, and sometimes a different family format is not what you expect but what is best. And sometimes, if you’re really lucky – and I am so lucky it hurts sometimes – love and people are more accepting and embracing and immense than you can imagine. I know from first-hand experience.

And with that, I want to send out gratitude and adoration and love to my extended, very non-traditional, very enviable family. I am so glad that my parents took the step they did, because only then could you become part of the foundation of my life. I am blessed.

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