Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Complicated Family

I don't have a "normal" family. Even before T died, it was complicated by the fact of D, his son from a previous relationship. Now it's so unsymmetrical it's crazy -- my family is B, but B's family is me and D, her half-brother. I was/am D's stepmother, but D's mother has no formal relationship with B. What do I call my late husband's father? And his father's wife? In-laws, I guess, though with the marriage having been dissolved by death, that law is no longer in effect.

This complexity has practical implications. Ever since T and I were married, we sent a family picture in our Christmas cards. First it was the three of us (me, T and D), then we became four. Last year, the first Christmas since T died, it was back to three. Taking and sending that photo was so hard, but it felt so important. Like the picture I had taken at my company holiday party, it was necessary to capture and reflect the new me, the new family.

This year, I happened to show a friend a JC Penney portrait of B and me taken a few months ago. "Oh!" she said. "You should use this for your Christmas card!" That got me thinking -- do I want to use a beautiful, good-quality photo that I think I look OK in, but without D, or a hit-or-miss snapshot taken with a camera whose flash seems to be having problems, so D can be included? After all, what is my role in D's life? What is our relationship, really? Is this Christmas photo my family, or B's family? Digging into my hesitation, I recognized some residual resentment toward D, toward T's need to divide his attention between me and D, and then also between D and our daughter B. And resentment at the complexity of my situation, my non-normal family.

Then I read an Ann Landers column (yes, I read her daily!) about grandparents who were wondering what their relationship should be to the new half-sibling of their grandchild. Paraphrasing, she said something like "see if you can find it in your heart to be generous and inclusive." Suddenly, the answer was crystal clear. D will always be invited to participate in this little family. Even if I remarry and form yet more complex family relationships, I want to him to know that he has a place with me and B if he wants it. At some point he may choose not to participate, temporarily or permanently, but I can not and must not add to his loss. His father is gone. If it is in my power, I must make sure the rest of his family relationships, however complicated and unconventional, remain loving and strong.

And incidentally, I found a great holiday card template that includes 6 small photos on the front, and one large one inside. I put the Christmas snapshot of the three of us on the inside, and my favorite pictures of both kids, plus the one of me with B, on the front. Problem solved!


  1. I think you found the perfect solution! Great pic of you and B, by the way.

    In today's world I think that the traditional family is a minority now. So much divorce and couples who never marry has changed the fabric of the normal two parent, 2.5 children landscape of the past. Add in gay and lesbian couples and you have a whole new melting pot.

    I'm not sure if you have come across this in my blog, but my family is a blended family. Not only are we blended but my husband and I both come from families with step parents and siblings. It can get quite confusing.

    I think you've given me an idea for a blog post ;)

  2. My brother and I have a half-sister from our mother's second marriage (I was 19 when she was born, and she's turning 19 tomorrow, which freaks me out to no end) and the extended family relationships were definitely the hardest to figure out. It wasn't a big deal to me, since I was in college and rarely visited, but it was weird and uncomfortable for my brother, who was 10 when our sister was born, to spend time with a grandma and grandpa who were hers but not his. I don't think they were ever mean to him, but I don't think they tried especially hard to make him feel included, either. It was all very complicated.