Who defined family anyways?

This is an article I wrote for Birthing Magazine, and I thought I’d share it here too. Get rid of your preconceived notions of what it means to be a family… and let me introduce you to mine:

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I just finished putting my dayhome babies down for a nap. The remaining two children in my care take up some colouring on the dining room table as I prepare a snack. My step-daughter is quietly reading in the living room, and for a moment it seems very peaceful. A short half hour later my two youngest children burst through the door and start telling me all about their day. Not even 10 minutes later, my partner Lindsay comes home with the groceries. She battled the crowds at Costco; she is my hero. We spend the next while talking about what we need to get done over the next week, what we should have for dinner, and how we wish we could do more yoga. It’s a spaghetti and meatballs kind of night, a kid favourite around here. Shortly after 4:30 my two teenagers drag themselves through the door and try to avoid any sort of conversation — they are teens after all. The house is now pretty busy: the dayhome babies have woken up and are getting ready to leave, dinner is almost ready, and in comes Justan, our other partner. He comes bearing wine and some much needed comic relief. And we all sit down for family dinner.

I never imagined my life would end up like this. In fact, if someone had asked me 20 years ago what my life would look like, I would have told them with much certainty that it would look like anything but this. And that in itself is a weird thing to accept, how something that had once never crossed my mind ended up being my entire reality. Well, it is, and I would not change it for the world.

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I met Lindsay in 2006 at a playgroup here in Calgary, even though I lived in Lethbridge at the time. We had similar interests, we were both in the process of starting natural parenting stores, and we were both seemingly straight. Now, we definitely weren’t straight, but for some reason, we both assumed that of each other. That is the epitome of heteronormativity.

Over the next six years, Lindsay and I kept in touch through Facebook and a fondness grew between us. We actually both had a crush on each other, although that wouldn’t be known until I moved back to Calgary in 2012. Close to a year after that, following some flirty Facebook messages, a handful of playdates with the kids, and one awkward night at the movies, it was pretty obvious how we felt about each other. That was nearly four years ago now, and we still laugh about how we ended up together and how incredibly awkward we were.

So here is where the story gets interesting. I had been a single mother since 2009, and even though I dated another woman for a couple years, I was still very much a single mother. Lindsay on the other hand was the exact opposite— she was, in fact, married. Lindsay and her husband Justan identified as polyamorous and both dated other people. Take a minute to think about that one.

In the beginning, I didn’t think our relationship would be long term — neither of us did, really. I assumed that because Lindsay and Justan were married there was no room for more love, and how could there be? I mean, isn’t it illegal anyways? So for the next four months, we both fell more and more in love while preparing for the end. Well, as you likely already know, the end didn’t come. It turned out that Justan and I actually really enjoyed each other’s company as well, and we decided to expand our relationship into a triad. We all have our own relationships with each other, but then also as a three-person team. It wasn’t, and still isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

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For the most part, we lived in two separate houses for the first year or so, but in 2014 we decided to merge our homes. Lindsay and Justan brought to the relationship one daughter, who is now eleven, and I brought with me four children, now aged nine, eleven, fourteen and sixteen.  In our home, there are three adults and five children, and it is exhausting. We live in a 1700 square foot bungalow, with three bedrooms on the main floor and three in the developed basement. The space is small, but has a good energy to it, even with all the people.

I’m not sure I knew at the time how challenging it would be to blend families. I had been in relationships where my then-partner accepted my children and that was that, but I had never been in a relationship where another child was involved. The dynamics change significantly when children are brought in from both sides. It was quite the transition for all the children. For Lindsay and Justan’s daughter, as she was an only child up until that point, she had to get used to sharing the time with her parents, and also spending so much time with other children. For my kids, they had to get used to sharing my time with the other adults, and also had to learn to get along with a new sibling.

 

IMG_8280There are some great things about blending a family such as ours. First, we have three parents. Yes, this varies from the norm, but the way we function is not all that different from a typical two-person relationship. We all take care of the children the best way we know how, we rotate cleaning, we express love and concern, and we communicate without yelling. I have to stress the “without yelling” bit, because I admittedly have always been a yeller. It’s not something I am proud of, in fact, I am deeply ashamed of it. Yelling is not even a part of our household discourse at all anymore, and I think it likely has to do with the number of helping hands in the home.

Now the children are another story — they have no problem yelling. Usually at each other, during a disagreement over chess or Exploding Kittens, but always as an attempt to let the adults know the horrible injustices they have been dealt. You know, in chess. They are fairly typical children. They play, they laugh, they hold hands while walking to the lake, and they fight. My own children fought before blending families, and they continue to do so afterwards. This is typical, and not a result of blending families, although now the children just have more options of who to argue with.

A topic of importance, and worthy of a conversation when blending families, is deciding who will be disciplining whom. We decided that it’s best if we all just discipline our own children, or at least for the day-to-day discipline. No one wants a step-mom or step-dad to come into the picture and just start doling orders out; it can become quite abrasive. Naturally, children will have their guard up a little bit with the new additions to the household, so try to not make the newcomers the “bad guys.” Of course, there are situations where the step-parent will have to step in and make an executive decision or enforce a rule or two, but it really is best to leave the nagging to the original parent. You see, my children HAVE to love me. They may not like me at times, but they will ALWAYS love me, as I will always love them. This is not the case for step relationships unfortunately, so spending time building a relationship of positives rather than negatives is key.

The other side of this coin is spending quality time with the step-children. Each of us parents has our own unique interests, and we make an effort to include all of the children in those. Well, all of the willing children anyways — we have teenagers too who do not particularly love hanging out with any of the adults for any extended period of time. I believe that to be fairly typical of their ages though, and try not to force anything. We find other ways to include and bond with them, like going to their soccer or football games, taking them out for coffee or lunch, and generally just showing an interest in their very complicated lives.

For the younger three though, we have ways that we all connect with them. I coached my step-daughter’s roller derby team last year, and this season my youngest has joined us. So once a week, the girls and I strap on roller skates and spend an hour skating, learning, and having fun. Lindsay enjoys reading, so she is the designated reader. Every night before bed, the three littles snuggle up in our king-sized bed (and I sneak in there sometimes too) and listen to Lindsay read. I know most parents read, but you should see the books Lindsay reads to the children. She reads books that they may not be able to read on their own, like “A Wrinkle in Time,” or currently, “The Golden Compass.” The books take a long time to read, and keep the children invested. They love their time reading with Lindsay. She also loves hiking, so will often arrange a nature walk or a mountain climb for the children and myself. This summer we climbed to the top of Prairie Mountain. The kids were so proud to reach their first summit.

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Justan enjoys Lego, boardgames, and gaming in general, so that is his role with the children. He gets to be the really fun one. When the kids get complicated Lego kits gifted to them, Justan is the one who will spend hours (and I mean hours) with the children helping them put it all together. He is also the one who will teach them to play a new board game, or help them with any of their gaming needs. They love Pokemon and Minecraft, and I think they like having an adult on their side with that stuff. Justan is also very fun in general, and can be quite silly. All the children (even the teenagers) can appreciate that side of Justan, and they are typically grinning ear to ear when he is engaged.

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It’s not easy. It takes so much more work than you might ever imagine to make a blended family run smoothly, particularly when adding the extra dynamic of polyamory. There will be problems, just like any family, but there will also be great successes. I know that I am teaching my children to be accepting, non-judgmental, loving and expressive, among other things. They will not, and do not, live in a bubble accepting whatever media decides to throw their way. They think critically, and ask questions instead of making assumptions, and that will help them later on in life.

I believe that it’s important to remember that it’s a long game. The successes may not show up until later, when the children are at an age that they can recognize them. But they will show up, I’m holding out for that.

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