Are we a real family?

It seems today that blended families are as common as nuclear, biologically intact families.  Step-siblings, shared visitation, weekends with one parent or step-parent don’t seem to be out of the ordinary parts of conversation and daily life, do they?  And although we might initially react with concern over divorce or changing definitions and dynamics of what it means to be a family, I’ve learned over the course of my own parenting journey that what a child needs most is somebody to love them, somebody to tell them they matter.   Having given birth or provided to DNA to another human doesn’t always define what it means to be family.  Does it?

From the outside looking in, we are a blended family, which could be interpreted as step-parents, step-siblings, “real” siblings, half-brothers or half-sisters.  It could also mean we’re just another family.  Sure, there’s some blending going on.  But there’s so much family going on too.  With a cheery laugh we joke about our family being a nicely blended set of bathroom towels: His, Hers and Ours.  It’s something we throw around to others, a lighthearted way of acknowledging our uniqueness without revealing any of the tricky details as to exactly how those bathroom towels are arranged on the rack or how many frustratingly joyful years it took, and continually takes, to position each towel so its purpose, its place and its reason for being part of this bathroom décor is understood.  I wonder what that even means.  And I also wonder if it’s possible to take a bathroom analogy a little too far.

She’s mine, he’s his and he’s ours.  The story goes a little something like this: We met, our eyes twinkled, our hearts skipped a beat and we instantly knew by way of powerful karmic forces, that we were exactly what each other needed.  So we packed our suitcases, moved in together, got hitched, bought a house and had a baby happily ever after.  The End.  And I watch peoples’ faces soften, I sense their hearts melting after hearing such a romantically happy ending to our story and I wonder how the details and lifecycle of our relationship makes people feel.  That version of the story is more emotionally palatable than rambling on about the actual events.  Because meeting your future husband in a Kmart store isn’t very romantic (and being somebody’s Blue Light Special was only funny the first 58 times).  Nor is telling people how your future husband secretly waited for you in the toy department, because where else would a single mother with a blonde, cherubic three year old girl end up shopping?  Retelling the story with the details of how your future husband helped you reach the Peter Pan Barbie down from the shelf so your little girl could play with it isn’t all that exciting.  I suppose what really makes people lay their hands over their hearts and gently tilt their heads is when I tell them how my future husband showed up to our first date with that Peter Pan Barbie in his hand because he heard me tell my little one I couldn’t buy it for her that day.

I wonder sometimes, are we seen as a “real” family or just this bunch of misfits who came together under a serendipitously random series of events?  Where’s that darn definition of family again?  Who decides which definition is the most up-to-date?  When does he stop being my step-son and when did he become just my son?  And where the hell are my car keys and who ate the last slice of veggie pizza?!

Merriam-Webster defines mother as a verb: To bring up (a child) with care and affection: “the art of mothering”.  Hey, I do that.  I bring up three children with consistent care and affection.  As well as with the occasional neurotic fits of hysteria about why clean bedrooms and nicely clipped toenails are important, but given that two out of the three children are full-blown, well-oiled creatures of puberty, I’m going to cut myself a few inches of slack.  And what about my husband and these two boys he biologically fathered?  How did his role change when a wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked three year old girl, not brought into this earth with his help in any way, suddenly wanted and needed his attention?  His role didn’t change.  He was just Dad.  For being man of such staggering genius in his profession, he’s pretty adept at not overthinking the emotional stuff.  She was just a child who needed him and fathering her was the right thing to do.

It didn’t take long for the personal possessives to drop themselves from his son or my daughter.  And yet, it did take long.  A very long time.  Ask me tomorrow and I’ll tell you it took a month.  Ask me the same question next week and I might tell you we’re still working on dropping them.  Blending a family will always be a powerful process in which selfishness and the ego have no productive role.  But, given that we’re all flawed humans, that lesson is one of those learn-as-you-go types.  And if you’re lucky enough to stick with each other through the process,  the rewards of learning to love are the kind of rewards that make you a better person.

I am a more sympathetic and compassionate person because I was “forced” by my own choices, to learn to love somebody without any maternal bonds to guide me.

One of the most delicious parts of this blended family smoothie is the smallest, youngest, most remarkably unique third child we made together.  We made him as a family because he is biologically related to each of us and there is no step or half about him.  Which, very significantly, removed the half or step from the rest of us too.  If you ask his big sister about him, she’ll roll her eyes and tell you how he annoyingly touches everything in her room and talks too much.  And then, five minutes later, you can find her snuggled on the couch, practicing spelling words with him.  If you want a good laugh, the kind of laugh that makes your sides hurt, ask his big brother how many times in one day he gets punched in the butt?  And then ask him if Saturday afternoon robot building with his little brother is one of his favorite things to do.  His answer will be yes.

It all seems fairly simple on paper and there are pages upon pages to this story that are ours alone to read, but we’re a family and we’re just as messed up as you.  But we’ve invested so much love into this blending process, it would be foolish of us to not stick it out.  Until the little brats go off to college and we can finally turn their bedrooms into our dream gym and bar.  One day, one sweet, sweet day.

Renée Chalou

About Renée Chalou

Renée Chalou lives and raises her family in Presque Isle, where she owns a fitness center, LiveWell United. Her oldest son is in his second year at UMO, her daughter plans to attend UMPI in the spring and her youngest son is an active, happy 11 year old in 6th grade. From her life experiences as a homeschooling parent, blending a family, and transforming herself from an overweight, side-line mother to a competitive athlete mother and fitness leader in her community, she writes about what she knows: living life well even when it's not perfect. She writes about finding and clinging to the good even when it would be easy to focus on the bad, no matter what challenges life brings. Life in Northern Maine is wonderful, full of adventures and sub-zero temperatures. It's not for everybody and nobody claims it's easy. But it's a good life, it's hers and she'd like to share some of it with you.