Her blended, adoptive, multi-racial family has been on the receiving end of a lot of nosy questions. But as this mom explains, they have the same challenges as any other family—with a few unique dynamics to manage, too.
“Why does he call you Jackie and not mom?”
“If you’re her mommy, why does she have black skin, and you don’t?”
Welcome to our reality—these are actual questions I’ve been asked by both neighbourhood kids and strangers. The only thing traditional about our family is the existence of a mom, dad, son and daughter. How we came to be a family is what makes us novel.
I met Chris after I had been separated from my first husband for almost a year. Chris had also been separated from his first wife for about the same period of time, and neither of us wanted a serious relationship. I had sworn I’d “never” get married again. Yet one year later, I was swearing in front of our friends and family to take him as my lawfully-wedded second husband.
I was 36 at that time and had started to realize that I needed to adjust my life-long assumptions about how my own family would form. I grew up believing I’d meet Prince Charming, he’d swoop me off my feet on his white horse and we’d live in our castle with the daughter and son our happily-ever-after passionate union had created. Five years of infertility and a divorce turned those notions into an even bigger fantasy. I knew there were challenges to step-parenting, but I was happy to embrace the presence of my then five-year-old stepson. At the very least, I would have a taste of motherhood every other week.
I wish I could tell you that we have a harmonious relationship with my stepson’s mother and that she is a close part of our family, but not all blended families merge to that degree. It’s not always easy on any of us, least of all my stepson. But after nine years, we have established certain routines, patterns and boundaries that are at least familiar. All four of us have made our share of mistakes in trying to work through this complicated relationship as we live it, but we also each try to keep my stepson’s best interests as our priority.
I love my stepson and have a fantastic relationship with him, but my longing for motherhood wasn’t satisfied with part-time duty, so my second year of marriage was spent doing three rounds of IVF in seven months. The failure of these treatments led me to ask myself: Did I want to be pregnant or did I want to be a mom?
After taking some time to accept the loss of our fertility, we began the process to adopt internationally. In September of 2009, we found ourselves driving through a grove of orange and lemon trees in South Africa to meet our eighteen-month-old daughter.
What was it like to hold our child for the first time? Well, probably no different than it was for any other parents to hold their child for the first time. Magical, emotional, scary, powerful, all-consuming—perhaps indescribable. Yet, it also held a profound element of loss and gratitude. Loss for our daughter of her biological family, loss of her for her birth family, and our love, respect and gratitude to an unknown woman who, despite her absence, became a member of our family the moment we agreed to adopt her child. Adoption is so very different from giving birth, yet still has so many parallels.
Upon our return to Canada with our daughter, we began the life-long task of teaching our children what being a part of a family means. Were they the only students? Absolutely not. In the eight years that Chris and I have been married, we have all learned so much. We have had to integrate so many different aspects of our novel family into our lives. A very real and present ex-wife and mother of my stepson and the legacy of divorce and shared custody. A very real but physically absent birth mother of my daughter and the traumas of her pre-adoptive life. The inclusion of a different racial and cultural heritage to our white privileged lives. The curious stares of strangers, the often-insensitive questions that follow the stares, the disbelief that we are a “real” family. It always surprises me that we live in a world that so easily accepts and integrates rapid technological advancements into our homes, yet for many, the definition of “family” often seems to have stagnated in the 1950s.
Our family isn’t perfect. We have the same challenges as other families with the addition of some that are unique only to us. But we keep trying to line up as four separate people standing united together. Family is what you make it. Family is what you want it to be. Dismissing genetics as irrelevant would trivialize both of my children’s biological families and their importance, but family isn’t only about science and bloodlines. Our family is built on unconditional love, acceptance, commitment, accountability and apologies, support, character growth, flexibility and the desire to want to work together as a team. Just like any other family.
This is #1000families post number 85. Do you have a family story of your own to contribute to the 1,000 Families Project? Or do you know a family that might want to do so? Learn more about how the series got started and how to get involved here. You can find all of the #1000families posts here.