Saturday, July 01, 2006

Defining families

There's been a lot of talk lately about defining marriage. A lot of folks want to broaden the definition of marriage to include a lot of things that don't really look like, well, marriage. What's the big deal?, these folks say, it's just a word.

Interestingly, those of us who've grown up with divorced parents are pretty darn particular about family definitions. I've noticed this in others and in myself. We make distinctions between stepfathers or stepmothers and "my dad's wife" or "my mom's husband." These terms are not interchangeable for children of divorce. The first set of terms defines a relationship that holds some real essence of parenting, one that feels and looks like family. The second set defines a relationship that may include friendship and respect but is not a parent/child dynamic. Maybe it's our way of gaining a little bit of control in an often out-of-control world, but these distinctions are important. They help us tell others how our family--which is no longer just mom, dad, and child--fit together and function.

We do the same sort of thing with sibling relationships. Full, half, and step siblings are often distinguished, but there is an exception to this rule. When half-siblings are born into the same household family that we live in, we often just call them our siblings, not our half-siblings. I never refer to my two brothers as my half-brothers, although technically that's what they are. I don't think of them that way, and they don't think of me as their half-sister. Why? Because they were born into the family that was my primary family. I lived exclusively with my mom and stepfather, whose sons they are. They thought it a little weird, I suppose, that I went away for a couple of weeks each summer to visit grandparents they didn't know, but gradually they came to understand that our mother had been married before and that I had another dad somewhere else.

When I was in France a few weeks ago, my dad and his wife (if you're reading closely, you'll notice the distinction) asked how I would feel about having a brother or sister. My immediate reaction was, I already have two brothers so what's the difference? But that's not quite right. I enjoy spending time with my dad and his wife, but our times together are few and far between and any children they have together would be about as closely connected to me as the children of my cousins who I see every couple of years and in annual Christmas photos. If they want to have kids, I think that's great and I will hope that with some age and maturity my dad will be to them the dad I always wanted him to be.

One of my brothers got married last weekend. My eyes welled once or twice, but the tears didn't spill over until after the ceremony when my mom said it seemed like just yesterday that he was two feet tall. I held them both as babies, fed them bottles, changed their diapers, held their hands as they crossed the street, dusted off their scraped knees, and received scribbled letters and badly painted craft projects from them when I was in college. The one who just married lived in my basement for four summers in high school and college and for two years following college. He fixes all my computer issues and puts things in the attic for me (he can reach the knob for the pull down stairs without standing on a stepladder) and I repay him in homecooked meals.

I know what to call him and his younger counterpart: they're my brothers in every sense of the word. I'm not yet sure what I would call those others hinted at in Paris; perhaps half-siblings, maybe "the children of my dad and his third wife." I guess we'll name that relationship when we get to it.


Kelly C said...

Kristine, this is excellent. You have clearly stated those all important relationship labels to us C.O.D. When using "My Father's wife", all too often I hear "Oh, your step-mom." Thanks for the great definitions!

Anonymous said...

Kris, I thank you for making us aware of your blogspot. I have never been touched by divorce personally until now with our son. I am finding great insights from you and the return comments. We that are not experienced in this subject assume that those that are just forget about it in time--speaking for myself. With what we are going through now it is my hope to share things learned with our son and kids hopefully reducing the pain and having understanding. Thanks!