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Janet Carlson Headshot

It May Be Time to Redefine Family

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Roger Angell wrote a wonderful story for the New Yorker a few years back in which he redefined the notion of extended family for our modern times, and I'd like to second that emotion. I liked his story a lot -- perhaps because I... related!

Like Angell, I include former step-relations in my own sense of family. And it doesn't feel right to jettison people you've grown attached to, possibly even love, just because they're related to one person you can't live with anymore. Family surely isn't only about having blood in common. The way I figure, anyone with whom I do vacation-planning for my children is part of my family. Okay, well, that's not a foolproof guideline, but you can see where I'm going with this.

I have an almost-ex husband with whom things are amicable. His girlfriend and I get along very well. Most people are surprised by this, and this surprises me. Why complicate things with hostility and other unnecessary madness? My divorced parents fought terribly when I was young, and I hated it, swore I'd never do it. But then, I also swore I'd never get divorced, and here I am. Anyway, I prefer to save my cortisol for more stressful situations.

My almost-ex is not so good with the planning and he knows it, so she and I text each other and share Google calendars in order to coordinate our daughters' (wait -- whose? Sorry -- his and my daughters') doctors appointments, weekend plans, summer camp visiting days and all the intricate rest of it. We share reading lists, too, and a glass of wine on each other's porch, plus we exchange gifts at holiday and birthday time. I'm serious. I genuinely like her, and I'm glad because my kids could have fared a lot worse. I'm happy for my almost-ex (henceforth referred to simply as ex, since it will be official later this year), and since I don't want him back, I can say unequivocally that I have no feelings of jealousy. Just an occasional competitive inburst (definition: an outburst kept to oneself).

Here are a few true vignettes of our holidays just passed. Unconventional coziness, maybe, but I stand by it as a healthy way to coexist in divorce, if only for the sake of the children.

My widowed ex-mother-in-law and I are still in touch because we like each other and because I want my daughters to see their grandmother as much as possible. Her 90th birthday fell just before Thanksgiving. My ex and his sisters planned her party. I was invited. So there we all were at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich: Me and my significant other, my ex and his partner, our respective children (total: 4), along with my ex's two sisters and their families. This was the first time one of them had seen me with her brother when I wasn't with her brother anymore, much less when any of his family had seen me with another man. My daughters handled it quizzically at first, then with aplomb and a shrug of oh-who-cares -- time to eat.

On Christmas Eve, after a visit to my sister's house to see our mom and step-dad who'd arrived from Massachusetts, I drove to my guy's neck of the woods and we went to his ex-wife's house (they're amicable, too) to attend her annual party for friends and relatives, among whom their twin daughters. I tell you, it was one big happy family, I'm sure with all the standard dysfunctional stuff going on that I wouldn't be privy to because they aren't my family -- yet.

Meanwhile, my daughters had flown off with their dad to ski at Telluride. Friends took them on a private jet. I was frantically nervous at first -- don't those smaller planes crash more often? Could they possibly be safe without me? -- and my ex's partner empathized. So who texted me when they were en route? She did. "In Telluride. Landed safely." And who spent money on Hanukkah gifts for our girls to give their dad? I did. And who spent money in Telluride for our girls to give me Christmas presents? Their dad did. It's a funny concept, spending money on gifts for the man you're divorcing, isn't it? The man you're trying to disentangle from financially? But somehow, it works, especially if you think of the children having the satisfaction of giving gifts.

I almost forgot to mention the trip I made before Christmas to Frenchtown, NJ, to pick up a rickety antique rocker that used to belong to my mother's great-grandmother. When my grandfather died in 1992, the rocker, along with other cherished antiques, stayed in the house of his second wife, my step-grandmother. When she died, the furniture stayed with her two spinster sisters. Marjorie, a sprightly 92, my late grandfather's sister in law, aka my step great-aunt, or step grand-aunt--or would it be ex-step-great-aunt because our connection is no longer with us? -- agreed to give the rocker to my mother as a surprise Christmas gift. Her sister Marion didn't have a say in the matter, as she was in her bed in the shade-drawn parlor owing to a stroke a couple of years ago. Her speech was halting and garbled, but when we sang a carol or two, I thought I saw her eyes smiling.

As my guy exited with the rocker, Marjorie confided in me in her foyer, gesturing to a group photo my mom must've sent starring me, my siblings, all our kids, the grandparents etcetera, "We don't have any family left, so I show everyone this photo of all of you and I say you're my family."

"We are," I said. That's all there is to it.

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