Defining “family” when there’s a divorce

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As a child I remember spending time with relatives and mentally drawing the family tree while everyone played cards and mixed cocktails and cheered for Auburn. These hilarious and super accomplished women are my mom’s first cousins. Their kids are my second cousins. Mom’s sister’s husband’s nieces are my cousins by marriage.

We had a couple of divorces in my family, and sometimes the “related by marriage” person would appear again at a funeral or wedding. But for the most part, in those cases, they drifted away from the rest of our group. I didn’t think about those folks’ relationship to me.

Sometimes it has to be that way, and I don’t judge any families in which that is the case.

But divorce does not have to split a family.

From literally the week my ex-husband and I parted ways, we have been spending holidays, birthdays and other family gatherings together with our extended families. That first Christmas was held at my former sister-in-law’s house, where she pulled us all together and wordlessly insisted we act like the family we were aspiring to be: untraditional, no longer married, loving and supportive for our child and each other, and certainly not broken.

I will never have enough words to adequately thank my (I still call her my “sister-in-law”) for making that Christmas happen. It set a precedent for all the future occasions, which have grown larger, understandably more relaxed, and full of more people who have entered this “new” family.

That includes my daughter’s stepmother.

When my ex remarried, his wife became frequent hostess to these gatherings of her new inlaws, her husband’s former inlaws, his ex-wife and even her ex-wife’s friends and their children.

Last Halloween, my ex-husband’s wife had her inlaws, me, my parents, her own ex-husband and his mother, over for dinner and trick or treating. This weekend she threw my daughter’s 12th birthday party and involved two of my best girlfriends and my boyfriend, who carried around on his shoulders her own best friend’s son.

She and my former sister-in-law – whom is technically her sister-in-law now – exemplify a kind of grace and confidence that obviously benefits the child in this situation, but that also benefits her father and me and – I believe – our own parents as well as others who want to forge something new and healthy in the wake of divorce instead of dwelling on things that went wrong.

Sometimes in this new, big family of ours, I have an awkward time figuring out how to introduce people. Is my former sister-in-law’s new baby my niece? An almost niece? A close family friend who happens to be my daughter’s baby cousin?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we call each other. Clearly we are a family.

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16 thoughts on “Defining “family” when there’s a divorce

  1. Pingback: The Heavy: A eulogy for my grandmother | Knight Stivender's life in full

  2. Pingback: 340 Tracks and Counting | Knight Stivender's life in full

  3. When Emily Wall was a little thing, she had a favorite t-shirt with a big pink graphic thingy and the words, “A family is a circle of people who love you.” This post? That t-shirt writ large.

  4. If there is one thing I have learned through my divorce is that every single one looks a little bit different. Sometimes, it’s just about finding your way through into a place of peace.

  5. I hope that someday this loving acceptance becomes the norm and not the exception. I wish that when people are uncertain about how to act with an ex or their family they’d just choose kindness. Bet they’d never regret it.

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