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Families in ALL Shapes & Sizes

My parents just celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary. What an incredible feat of dedication and love. Their stable marriage has been an inspiration to me and has been a constant and steady foundation in my somewhat turbulent lifetime. I am divorced. I was a single mom for years and am now raising a blended family. It’s complicated. And, complicated seems to be the new normal.

When I was growing up, I had one friend who came from a divorced household. When her parents split up, it was scandalous! While she primarily resided with her mother, she spent weekends with her dad and his new girlfriend. None of us understood what she was going through. Everyone else’s parents were married—and stayed married regardless of whether or not they were truly happy. As teens, we were well aware of whose parents were happily married and whose were not. Regardless, the message was clear. Stay loyal to your spouse and your family and honour the commitment that you made.

Ironically, and without sharing our decisions in advance, my sister and I both left our husbands within weeks of each other. This was shocking and highly uncomfortable for my parents.

“Where did we go wrong?” they asked. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that my brother has never married. From a distance, this seems very curious, considering we had a healthy and loving model of marriage to observe. Did my parents truly “go wrong” or are societal expectations of commitment changing? Clearly, I believe in the latter explanation, but empathize with those of my parents’ generation who struggle to understand. Choosing personal happiness over family loyalty seems selfish.

My sister and I were nervous to share the news with our grandmother. She married the day after her 18th birthday and stood beside her man until the day he died. Their life was not always easy, but she valued her marital vows.

After timidly breaking the news to her, we were surprised by her candid reaction. She was proud of us. Her marriage, it seems, was not very happy but she was trapped by financial restraints. As a homemaker in the 1950s and 1960s, she was bound by the fact that her husband controlled all of the money. In fact, she did not have her own bank account or know how to manage money until he passed away. She wished that, in her youth, she would have been strong, brave and independent like we were. She was happy that we had options and were not constrained by fear of the unknown. Divorce was simply not an option for her and she was glad that we were not trapped as she had been.

The aftermath of divorce can be messy. We deal with custody agreements, navigate complicated and emotional relationships with ex-spouses and lose sleep over financial worries. We carry heavy guilt over the massive disruption we have caused to our children’s lives and we suffer moments of great loneliness.

However, it can also be empowering. After leaving my husband, I tried to create my new life with intention and purpose. My old life, after all, had been a result of going along with things because they were logical but not necessarily because they brought me joy. I didn’t want to make that mistake again. There were many choices to make, but all of them were within my control and this was exciting (and terrifying). Where did I want to live? Who did I want to spend my time with? How would I occupy my new-found free time when my children were with their dad? Who am I and who do I want to become?

Eventually, part of my life remodel involved dating and settling down once again. I also wanted to be mindful in choosing my new partner, so I sat down and made a list of qualities that I desire and need in the person with whom I choose to share my life. I ended up meeting a lovely man and we made the choice to merge our lives and our families. He has one son. I have two.

While our love was deep and strong, the blending of two families with distinct experiences, various expectations and different parenting styles proved to be an enormous challenge. In addition to this emotionally confusing situation, my new husband and I both faced the reality of parenting with our ex-spouses and their new partners. Juggling all of these perspectives, opinions and intense feelings often felt overwhelming.

On one particularly exhausting day, I called my mom, looking for some advice. Was all of the drama and pain worth it? Even though I met the love of my life, our reality was incredibly difficult and we both had moments when we wanted to walk away.

Thinking that my mom could offer some perspective, I was taken back when she replied that she had none to offer. She had never had a similar experience. While her heart broke for me, she had no wisdom to share. “I don’t know what I would do, if I were you,” she said.

In that moment, I realized, within a single generation, we have blown up the idea of a traditional family. Of course my mom could not relate to my situation. Her parents were married until death. My dad’s parents were married for 50 years. All of their friends were married and the occasional divorce was swept under the rug as an embarrassing failure.

I began to look around at my own group of friends. Yes, some are lucky enough to have met their spouse at an early age and have formed a lovely life together. Yet, many of my girlfriends are single parents. Some are actively dating and others are quite content to focus on themselves and their children.

Among the ones who date, some of them do so for the enjoyment and ease of entertainment. Some are looking for another to share their lives. And yet others enjoy a relationship without the complication of cohabitating. I have friends who are committed to a new marriage and are navigating the blended family to the best of their abilities.

All of us are making choices that feel right for ourselves and our children. All of us act with the best of intentions, and at times, lack the grace and wisdom we need. While my mom (bless her supportive and empathetic heart) could not offer advice from a place of true understanding, my girlfriends could.

My final thought is this: Society no longer holds a concrete definition of family. Families now come in many variations. While to some, this may seem uncomfortable and sad, even, I choose to see it as empowering. There are no rules to constrain us. We get to write our own stories. As long as the family we choose to create brings us joy and our children feel supported and loved, society is open and accepting to all of us. That’s an incredible realization.

So, when times get tough (as they inevitably will), look to those around you and see what you can learn. From my grandmother, I learned to appreciate my options and recognize my bravery. I learned to push through my fears and make the difficult choices. From my mother, I learned what true love looks like. I learned the value of enjoying your partner, being best friends with them. I learned to give my partner room to be who they need to be and to stand on my own and be my authentic self. I learned what unconditional loyalty, acceptance and support looks like. From my girlfriends, I learned that it’s okay to make choices that fulfill my own happiness, whatever that may look like.

So, whether you are happily married, single or in a struggling relationship, embrace your reality for what it is. Make your own rules and pursue your own happiness. Love yourself and your kids. Everything else will fall into place.

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Kelly Cleeve
Kelly Cleeve is a passionate educator with 14 years experience. She is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, a wife and a mother of 2 beautiful boys.

Oct/Nov 2020

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