My parents split up when I was 12, and my dad got remarried when I was 20. In under 10 years, I went from having the most classic nuclear family — one dad, one mom, one brother, and me — to being part of a massive blended family that just keeps getting bigger. Although my parents' divorce was painful at the time, now that I'm a grown-up, I wouldn't trade my blended family for anything.
The photo above was taken at Thanksgiving a few years ago. That's my mom on the far left and my dad on the far right. In between is just family.
I still refer to Dee as my "stepmom" for clarity's sake, but mostly I just call her Dee. I used to refer to Dee's sons as my stepbrothers, but as our family grows bigger, I've ditched the qualifiers for the most part and call them "brothers." It's too much trouble to explain that I'm attending my "stepnephew's wedding" or that I'm going to hang out with my "step-sister-in-law." While we didn't grow up under the same roof, I have known my "step" family for 25 years, and at some point, I realized we were all just family.
Of course, I have a special bond with my biological brother, Paul. We are only 15 months apart in age, we helped each other get through our parents' divorce, and we still help each other work through life's challenges. My parents told us that they were getting a divorce shortly after Thanksgiving in 1992. To help soften the blow, they assured us that we'd all celebrate Christmas together as a family. I remember that Christmas being bittersweet, but the comfort of it outweighed the pain.
My parents stayed friends, and they didn't want my brother or me to feel like we were growing up in a broken home. By the next year, my dad was dating Dee. They invited my mom to spend Thanksgiving with my dad, Dee, and her family — and it's been that way every holiday for the past 25 years.
While I mourned the dissolution of our nuclear family, I also accepted that it was no longer an option. I focused instead on embracing a new family.
While I'm sure the combined Thanksgiving was originally driven by a desire to ease my brother's and my transition during a difficult time, it felt so natural that we just kept doing it. Our holiday traditions have morphed over the years, as people grew up and got married and had children. Now, different households take turns hosting holiday celebrations; even my mom hosts. Although I don't always make it back for the party (I'm the only one who isn't living in my hometown), I love knowing that all the people I love are spending Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and Easter together. I recently learned that I was left off of a family "party planning" text chain and demanded to be on it, despite not being there to enjoy the crabmeat.
But that's not the only reason I love having a giant blended family. I love how my blended family has shaped me as a person and how it has changed the way I define "family." I think one reason divorce can be so traumatizing, especially for a 12-year-old, is that it can feel like one day you have a family and the next day you don't. While I mourned the dissolution of our nuclear family, I also accepted that it was no longer an option. I focused instead on embracing a new family. The more I got to know that family, the easier it became to embrace them, because they're all pretty great.
The author's family back when it was the epitome of nuclear.
I grew up in Pensacola, a city of around 50,000 people in the Florida Panhandle. It's not a small town, but it's small enough that if my parents had an acrimonious divorce, it would be impossible to avoid awkward encounters. I'll be the first to admit that my parents' split wasn't perfect, and there are aspects of the aftermath that I still struggle with. But the fact that my parents remained civil, and that my family allowed itself to blend and morph into a new form, made it infinitely easier to cope.
As a result, various members of my family have formed friendships that exist separate from the larger organism. I babysat for my nieces and nephew when I was in high school, my sister-in-law was my math tutor (pity her), my brother Paul and my stepbrother Jon play tennis together, and my mom is teaching my other sister-in-law how to do floral design. I like being the cool aunt my stepnieces can ask for advice — though, frankly, they haven't really needed it.
I like to think my family is better than most at embracing change. We welcome new members into the family, but we also understand that people come and go. My blended family was incredibly supportive of me during my divorce, for instance. When dealing with life's challenges — divorce, addiction, death — and life's happy moments, it's a gift to have such a large support system. My parents' relationship has also given me a pragmatic perspective on relationships and their endings, like the fact that I am never jealous of my partner's exes. Sometimes, a relationship just has to end, and you never know how many other bonds will bloom in its place.