The word “family” is defined by Google as “a group consisting of parents and children living together in the same household”. That broad definition seems appropriately vague, considering the modern family dynamic of today. So, which is “better”; two adults who create “biological” children, raising them together in a genetically matched family or a mish-mash of DNA brought together by two adults, forming a genetic melting pot of a family. I believe that both arrangements can have positive outcomes and that one is no better than the other.
Throughout our history, families were considered to be “broken” if the parents divorced, suggesting that the children, who were now from a “broken home”, had a significantly higher chance of failure in what ever life threw at them.
Many studies on the effects of divorce and the family have been commissioned and published, mostly by religious groups, with the results influencing generations of parents to continue a “bad” marriage, usually to the detriment of the children. Of the parents who did divorce, many of their children were led to believe that they were now somewhat different, less-than or flawed as human beings. These myopic conclusions have been used by elements of our society, mostly to further an agenda or religious belief that supports their position on an issue.
Society, as a whole, allows this stigma to continue by labeling children as either this or that based on the parents choice of family structure, forgetting that the child rarely has a choice in the matter. The first step is to stop with the traditional religious dogma that suggests that divorce is against God’s will and accept that divorce, while hopefully not a couples first choice, is a reality and is going to continue to be an option, regardless of the church’s position. In addition, I believe that this “pressure” adds to a child’s feelings of shame; as if he or she needed more things to feel bad about.
I am the product of a “broken home”. My mother and father divorced when I was an infant, each remarried, had children and the “new” parents brought with them, additional children. Suddenly, I have half-sisters, a step-brother, step-parents, step-grandparents and so on. Growing up, they were all I knew. The “step” title seemed to only appear when I wanted to create distance from someone who had irritated me. Unfortunately, the world made sure to draw the distinction and was never remiss at reminding me that despite my parent’s failures, I could make it in life if I didn’t make the same “mistakes” and followed a more traditional and usually biblical path. Oddly, I didn’t feel that I had a problem. My “other” father lived two hours away and there I had a brother, sister, and another mother. At worst, I would describe this dynamic as “messy”.
But this was my life. I had friends whose parents were not divorced and they seemed to have a life similar to mine. Initially, I remember being jealous that everyone in their house had the same last name. Other than that, we all grew up, graduated high school and went about our lives. It was then that I realized an important point. It wasn’t the divorce, blended or non-blended, step this or that; it was the parents. I noticed that how you turned out had very little to do with your parents’ marital status, but was more accurately reflected in how you were parented. It didn’t seem to matter whether you had one parent or two. It was in how they, the parent, filled their role. In my large circle of friends, some had deceased parents, divorced parents, a single parent, two parents, either mixed or biological. Some were even raised by extended family members.
Whether you turned out, whatever that means, seems to have been based on three things: 1. The influence of the adults in your life, 2. the choices that you made and 3. a bit of good luck. I hoped I would do well as a parent and an adult, only time would tell.
Then at 20, wondering what kind of parent I would be was no longer academic, it was suddenly very real. What kind of husband would I be? It is said that we are the sum of our life’s experiences and at this time, I didn’t add up to much. I thought of all of my parents and what I had learned up to this point. Each parent stopped being part of the “parenting group” and became an individual. Jack, Rod, Kit and Helen were my role models and I would pick and choose the positives of each hoping to become the best parent that I could. It was then I realized that I was alone and that ultimately, I would be responsible for my own behavior, as upon closer inspection, I really didn’t want to follow any of them, especially Jack and Rod. I realized that I didn’t know Helen very well and that Kit (my mother) had been the most influential person in my life but didn’t appear to have enjoyed being a parent in the way that I wanted to be for my children. (Two points: 1. I was a “mouthy” teenager and 2. Her childhood was less than ideal). Regardless of whether she enjoyed it or not and because of her efforts, I turned out and have done quite well.
This had, in my opinion, cemented my belief in that it doesn’t matter whether you are raised in a “traditional family” or a “blended family”, it’s the people who surround you who make the difference. Staying together “for the children” or because the “bible says so”, do not make parents better people anymore than a captain who goes down with his ship, makes him a better captain. Dead is dead, either in the physical sense or the marital one. I have also learned that your children do know the difference and if you are delusional enough to think that you have fooled them on your success at staying together for them, you’ll certainly learn later when they choose their path at parenting and use your relationship as an example of the kind they want to avoid.
In addition, your adult children are the measure of your success or failure. They know all and are not fooled, ever, by any efforts to hide who or what you are. No one will ever know you better or love you more, despite your misgivings.
A step further, since it doesn’t seem to matter how your family unit is biologically constructed, I suggest to you that with decent parenting, a child can actually become more enriched from a blended family structure. Let that soak in. To purists of a traditional family structure, this idea is akin to choking down a brick. This is not to say that traditional is bad, it just has limits. Imagine a blended family that has a racially diverse makeup. The advantages are obvious.
After our first child, we had two more and then divorced. I married Lilly, who already had two daughters and now there were seven of us; three daughters, two sons and us, the parents. That was a long time ago and the story continues happily. The story did not begin that way though. Does the end justify the means? Only our children can answer that question. In the beginning, there was chaos and many suffered. To me, this is where the traditional family scores the most points. But only here.
As the marriages came apart, the children suffered in ways that only time will truly reveal. When my parents divorced, I was an infant and I have no memory of the event. Our children weren’t so fortunate. The “other” parents suffered tremendously. They, for the most part, didn’t choose this new path, although their behavior ultimately had a part in its creation, and they were dragged along for the ride.
Anger, frustration, jealousy and sadness were thrust upon them and I regret being a part of it’s cause. The children, who had a front row seat to the carnage, were forced to make choices and accept that they had very little, if any, control of their environment or future. It was bad and there we were. It was time to parent and all four of us, to different degrees, did just that.
I remembered the blended family that I was raised in. Lilly remembered hers. To me the core was simple. No one is a “step” anything. I now had five children, they were all mine and I promised Lilly that I would never treat them otherwise. We would provide a home which was rich is the celebration of the normal. Lilly made sure of that. Holidays, birthdays and family trips were big events and life began again. The “other” parents (I honestly don’t know how to address them here) participated and remained an active part of the children’s lives, making significant contributions when and where they felt it necessary.
The seven of us grew stronger as a family. Each child is different and special in their own way. They meshed incredibly well and see each other as brother and sister. Our family gatherings are a celebration to the diversity of the gene pool, to success, where failure was possible and a reminder of the path that was taken. The failures of four adults has been turned into the success of five wonderful children. Lemonade from lemons.
So which is better? I have known no other way, nor has Lilly. Our children have and they will judge which, if they choose. If the initial divorce carnage could be eliminated, I feel the blended family offers more variety of life than traditional. I like to think of it as either being raised in a small town or a large city; the opportunities for growth and learning can be greater in one, more so than the other.
When I started this article, my intention was to argue that the blended family was actually “better” for the overall development of a child. Unfortunately, while writing this, I was forced to remember the pain which made this story possible. There are no easy answers to marriage, parenting or life. It appears that the only solution, without the pain is, well…polygamy. I’m quite certain that this “solution” won’t fly with Lilly.
The antiquated “broken home” label needs to be eliminated. We are all broken in some way. Blended families represent “a celebration of diversity” and this description more accurately reflects the aspirations of today’s Modern Family.