There’s a magnetic poem on my fridge, and it reads “I love us / family is something creative.” The only hitch is, it’s not my fridge anymore, and hasn’t been for almost a year. My ex-partner and I broke up last year after a four-year relationship, the majority of which was spent co-habitating in the house we bought together. It was also spent parenting his daughter, now 9 years old, with his ex-wife and her husband. The relationship of all four parents—dad, mom, stepdad, and stepmom (me) was peaceful, casual, and even friendly. When stepdad was diagnosed with cancer, we were there to take additional time with the kiddo beyond our 50% custody. Whenever anyone moved homes, the other household pitched in. It wasn’t always pitch-perfect, and there have been disagreements and differences in parenting strategies (TV or no TV? Isn’t that lunch too sugary and insubstantial?), but with kiddo at the heart of it all, we did just fine.
On the day of the Connecticut school shootings, amidst the horror of lives lost, my (now-ex) partner dropped the bombshell on me, seemingly out of nowhere: he wanted to end our relationship. It came as a surprise to me, and though we were both sad, we both also recognized the truth in what he was saying—for a long time, we had functioned as a family unit, but were no longer romantic partners or love interests to each other. After a harrowing Christmas holiday that included the death of one of my in-laws, I moved into my own place and set up shop as a 32-year old single woman.
Despite the fact that we were all working through a lot of change and emotion, we began to shape a new version of “us.” I recently read Maria Bello’s thoughtful and moving piece in the New York Times on what she calls “the modern family.” In it, she discusses her relationship with her son, her son’s father, and her best friend-turned-lover. Bello considers the connotations of the word partner, and muses about her son’s father, “Because we were platonic, did that make him any less of a partner?” The answer turns out to be a resounding no. We have all kinds of life partners, and it is increasingly the case that families are re-defining partnership, love, parents, and family—words that, through the years, have been invoked by traditional and conservative pundits to rail against a tide of change, as we shift further and further away from heteronormative, nuclear families, and begin to recognize that love and family are what you make of them.
What this meant for my family, in a practical sense, was this: I remained a parent to my stepdaughter. Her dad, and also, occasionally, her mom, relinquish (generously and uncomplainingly) some of their custodial time to me. I also regularly join my child and her father for dinner at his place. When she is here, our routines hold: bedtimes and homework, outings and chores. We’ve also added new traditions: Saturday mornings at my local farmer’s market. Stepmama-stepdaughter camping trips. I also spend quality time with her dad—we’ll go for dinner and/or beer, or chat on the phone.
Of course, it was likely that one or both of us (myself and kiddo’s dad) would eventually start dating again, and so we did. Her dad began seeing someone in February, while I met my current partner in April, dated through the summer, and then invited him to live with me in September. So now, we have six people—all with different interests, passions, habits, personalities, and values—striving to co-parent effectively and make our family function.
Have we succeeded? Largely, yes. Our first all-parents gathering was a family dinner for the kiddo’s ninth birthday. Her mom held a BBQ, and we all came, bearing hugs and presents for the child that binds us all together. Wine and conversation flowed freely. I thrilled to see kiddo’s mom and my current boyfriend animatedly sharing their dislike of camping (something that myself, kiddo’s dad, and kiddo’s dad’s girlfriend all love). We co-supervised the birthday party the next day. At my place, I watched my boyfriend teach my kiddo’s dad to play some more chords on the guitar. This Christmas, partner and I will host kiddo, kiddo’s dad, and dad’s girlfriend for lunch before they head off for other family obligations. It’s a logistical challenge, but one I believe we are meeting with compassion, kindness, and respect.
Along the way, a number of resources, both online and print, helped me understand some of the emotional and psychological impacts of living in a blended family. I’ll be forever grateful to Stepchicks, an online community of women (where I am now a moderator) who share their stories, frustrations, challenges, and joys. I also appreciated A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom, by Jacqueline Fletcher, which was full of tips and exercises; another excellent resource is Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin, which covered ground on theories and research about the cultural assumptions made about stepmothers and why they are unhelpful. More importantly, I had my parents to talk to about making this work. Because I come from a blended family myself (both of my biological parents are remarried), I was able to turn to them for help and conversation. I remain especially indebted to my own stepmother—she always knows exactly what’s needed, whether it’s advice, a quiet ear to listen, or a suggestion to write about my experiences.
But, here’s the thing. This isn’t a fairy tale. I’m writing about the aspects of us that work, but our story is lined with broken hearts, serious illness, major life changes, and, most importantly, a lot of adjustment for a wee one who sometimes struggles to understand why the people she loves the most can’t just make things work and continue on as she’s used to (“Why does this keep happening to me?” she asked me, crying, on one of our camping trips). I had planned this piece to be a meditation on how we make our family structure work. But the hardships we’ve faced, and the disagreements we’ve had (and will continue to have) are not unique to non-normative families. What makes us “work” are the same qualities that are crucial to any family unit—open communication, a willingness to sometimes agree to disagree, and mutual respect. I am not connected by blood to a single one of these people. But they are mine. This is the family I have chosen, the family I have formed, and the family I will continue to nurture and be proud of—not despite our unusual structure, but because of it.
Mandy Penney is a professor, stepmom, and knitter, though not necessarily in that order. She is also a moderator at stepchicks.ning.com, a website that offers support, resources, and community for women in blended families. She loves comics, Scrabble, politics, and intersectional feminism—again, not necessarily in that order.