Stories of All Our Unique Families*
You know the story. Two people (usually told as a man and a woman) meet, fall in love, get married, and have two kids. The stress of parenting becomes overwhelming. The love they felt for each other fades, and they fight all the time. They end up getting divorced, spend years and tons of money dividing up the kids and the property, and are left mourning their failed family. This is the story we tend to tell about families and their changes.
This is not the only story.
My mom was 29 when I was born. My dad was 55 and had two grown daughters in their mid-20s. My parents dated for over a decade, but purposefully never lived together. My dad never took on much of a parenting role, but was around the house a couple times a week, and would take me to movies, the ballet, and to his friend’s Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of my family was that three friends of my mom’s committed from before she was pregnant to help her parent me. In true 1960s fashion, they referred to themselves as my “Parenting Collective.” One of them is still an important member of my family. Her name is Ruth, and I call her my co-mom. Ruth also provided me a co-brother, a co-stepfather, and three co-stepbrothers. I stayed with her one night a week, occasionally on weekends, and any time my mom was out of town from the age of 6 months to 13 years, when I finally balked at her lack of cable TV. Aside from the “Parenting Collective,” my mom chose to parent me mostly on her own until she met my stepfather when I was nine. When I was 12, they had my little sister. My three sisters and I span three generations, from mid-20s to mid-60s.
I tell this story because it is not often heard. Working in the world of divorce, I am often struck by the limits of the stories we hear about what families look like and what happens when they separate or change shape. While the usual story does fit the experience of many families, I think it’s very important to also hear stories about how people conceptualize family in unusual or innovative ways, both when they are making the choice to have children, and also when the shape of the family is shifting and changing.
The following two books offer true examples of this kind of story.
In “Reconcilable Differences: Marriages end. Families Don’t” Cate Cochran tells the true stories of ten marriages (including her own) that “successfully failed.” By this she means that as the marriages ended, the families were able to shift, restructure, and reimagine themselves in creative ways that recognized their continued interdependence and aimed to collectively meet everyone’s needs. For many, this meant continuing to live in the same home. For some, it meant continuing family traditions and weekly dinners. For others, it meant maintaining the aspects of shared parenting that worked well during the marriage, while finding new ways to address parenting differences. Some people continued to live together, or in close contact, even as they integrated new partners and other extended family. For many, the early years of transition were a struggle, but once they moved on from the loss of the romantic relationship they had hoped for, they were able to maintain caring friendships and co-parenting relationships. They were able to do this because they figured out what would work for their unique family, with their kids’ interest at heart, rather than accepting dominant stories about the outcome of divorce.
In “And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families” Susan Goldberg and Chloe Brushwood Rose compile 22 stories of LGBTQ individuals and families who chose to ask people they knew to donate sperm or be a surrogate for them in their efforts to have children. In doing this, they often unknowingly created new family structures that have no clear script to guide them. Many of the stories talk of the important role of a known donor, not as another parent or an uncle, but as someone who is part of the family, with a particular and special relationship with the child. Others talked about expanding their notion of family to include not only the donor or surrogate, but also the donor's family, partners, and close friends. Most of the stories tell of the complication, confusion, joy, and love that come with having multiple adults who care for a child. The authors state:
“We have been amazed at the diversity of roles that donors and parents – and their children – occupy, and the creativity and thoughtfulness they bring to those roles. Rather than asserting that their families are “just like everyone else’s” … the contributors to this book (mostly) revel in their families’ uniqueness, see the unexpected as a strength, something to be celebrated, despite – or even because of – the challenges that differences poses.” (p. 9)
It is important to listen to stories about all the different forms of family for a whole bunch of reasons.
First, going through separation is strange and alienating. Many people feel like no one can understand the pain they are living through or the confusion they face when they look to the future. People turn to others who have experienced similar things, to blogs and self-help writings, and to expert advice to help them see a path. For families who don’t fit the dominant story, there are few of these sources of information that reflect their reality. The lack of these stories makes it harder to access relevant and respectful care.
Second, these stories offer a wider range of possibilities as to what family can look like, and we can learn from their different experiences. These stories give permission to envision alternatives and be creative in imagining what comes next. While the standard story of the division of a nuclear family might work best for many or even most people, there are likely many others who have just never imagined that anything else is possible. The more we can embrace and understand the different and unique ways that families form, change, and adapt, the more we can support them to find what works best for them.
If you are looking for different stories, I recommend these books as a place to start. If you have a story of your unique family to tell, I'd love to hear from you!
*This blog post is not an endorsement of any of the specific stories, including my own. It is also not legal advice. It is very important when going through any family transition to seek support to ensure you are acting in the best interest of your children, and to understand any legal impact of your family changes.