Divorced families are often described as disconnected, diminished and cut off, but last week I met with an old friend, Brandy, who reminded me that this stereotype is often unfair and inaccurate. Brandy's story offers the opposite lesson: that while divorce brings with it many problems, it can expand and enrich a family, sometimes in incredibly unexpected ways.
Twenty years ago, when Brandy married Joel, his active, energetic two year-old son Brian came to live with them. Brian soon tested Brandy's limits. One morning, late to work and racing to get out of the house, Brandy was trying to get Brian's sneakers tied to get him to daycare. Brian wiggled and cried and was on the brink of a full-blown tantrum. Brandy burst into tears. Working full time and juggling their new domestic lives, she and Joel had quickly moved from the romantic stage of their relationship to "Did-ya-dump-the garbage-and-what-are-we-having -for dinner?" How had her life become so overwhelming?
Just then the phone rang. It was Brandy's mother, Sheila, who lived three flights up in the same apartment building. When Sheila heard Brandy's plight, she arrived at her door, made short work of Brian's untied shoes, and promptly fell in love with the adorable toddler.
At the time, Brian lived with Brandy and Joel during the week, and spent weekends with his biological mother, Lynn. In those early and painful days of divorce, Lynn and Joel had stopped speaking, and Brandy, feeling loyal to her new husband, avoided Lynn as well. Later Brandy would admit to feeling threatened by Joel's ex wife, a beautiful and bohemian actress.
True to stereotype, divorce had disconnected and diminished this family. But little by little, things changed. For a starter, Sheila, a working playwright, offered herself as a "bridge" between Brian's two families, and her apartment was used for Brian's drop offs and pick-ups.
It didn't take long for Sheila to relish her new role as a first time grandparent. Sheila realized that Brian needed all the adults in his life to get along-- and that she could play a crucial role in creating an expanded family. Deliberately bonding with Brian's mother, Sheila soon learned that Lynn had lost her mother at an early age, and now felt adrift about her own mothering skills. Sheila, a warm and creative person, adored mentoring the young and floundering Lynn, professionally as well as in the mothering department. When Brandy learned of Lynn's vulnerabilities and saw the bond that had arisen between her mother and Lynn, she began to feel less threatened by her husband's beautiful ex wife. Feeling more secure, Brandy became curious, and one evening, when Lynn called to discuss the weekend schedule, Brandy found herself lingering on the phone. The two women began a lengthy conversation about their shared interest--Brian.
Therapists often talk about family systems--if a teenage daughter has, for example, an eating disorder, the problem can be traced to a whole system of dysfunctional interactions within the family system. If other people in the family can become healthier, chances are so can the suffering individual. Divorce, too, affects not only the divorcing couple, but the entire family system--children, new spouses, and new in-laws. Every time one person in the family grows, new options emerge for healing the entire system. That's what happened with Brandy and her family.
Soon after that first conversation with Lynn, Brandy realized that if she wanted to get along with her stepson she had to get along with his biological mother. Lynn, for her part, continued to thrive under Sheila's nurturing. Sheila found the role of "bridge" suited her in ways she could never have imagined. Before long, Sheila, Brandy and Lynn often found themselves putting their heads together to resolve the everyday problems of managing an active two year old who was now living in two homes.
The healing connections spread. Now that Brandy felt comfortable with Lynn, it was easier for her to encourage Joel to reconnect to Brian's biological mother in positive ways. It was a domino effect. Because once Joel and Lynn had thawed to one another, a new and loving expanded family could heal the place in everyone's hearts that had been torn open by the pain of divorce.
Brian now had three people (Joel, Lynn and Brandy) who cared deeply about him. And this had all sorts of practical implications. Most Mother's Days and many holidays were spent in the company of his father, his biological mother, and his stepmother. Although he lived with Joel and Brandy, in the summer he spent a month with Lynn, which gave Joel and Brandy some time off.
What astonished my friend, Brandy, the most, however, was how much she, too, benefited from the expansions in her family. Within a short while, Lynn had proved to be a steadadfast support. When Joel was in one of his difficult, workaholic phases, it was Lynn who helped Brandy understand him better. When Brandy had a breast biopsy, it was Lynn and Sheila who accompanied her to the appointment and waited with her for the biopsy results.
As for Sheila -- the wise grandmother who had first befriended Lynn and paved the way for Brandy to feel secure enough to befriend her new husband's ex spouse -- she too, benefited as a loving family system became established. In Sheila's final years, when she was stricken by a series of debilitating illnesses, she was tended not only by her daughter, Brandy, but by Lynn as well. "She's like a a second mother to me," Lynn told Brandy, acknowledging how Sheila helped her sort through so many difficulties raising Brian.
As Brandy put it, "Lynn is not only Brian's mother, but she's really my friend as well. But she's more than a friend--she's a connection that doesn't fit easily in any category. She's not exactly a sister or a cousin, but she's part of my family, part of my history." Which brings me back to my point--divorce can expand a family, in unimaginable ways.
In interviewing families for my new book, Ive heard incredible stories about how people are really living today. Write in and tell me yours!
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