03/18/2011 06:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blended families: A Hat That Says What Words Can't

News flash: My daughters have a new baby brother! No, don't congratulate me--I wasn't the one who gave birth (I'm happy to report). My ex-husband and his wife had a baby, which makes him my...umm...stepson once removed?

I'm pretty sure there isn't a name for that relationship. It's complicated. Anyone who is involved in a blended family knows how complicated it can get; if you're not involved in one, just imagine how complicated it might be, then multiply that by ten. Trust me.

When this cute-as-a-button baby arrived, he put a whole new wrinkle in the blended family landscape. Suddenly there's this hugely significant little person in my daughters' lives who has almost exactly nothing to do with me! A month or so ago, as we got closer to his birth, I felt the need to do something about this situation that was otherwise out of my control; I set aside the sweater I was making for myself and knit the baby a hat.

First of all, this really isn't a surprising response for me--my ex-husband and I get along well, and I really like his wife. Plus, when people I know have babies, I knit hats. It's what I do. Why wouldn't I do the same for them? I have a stash of super-soft kid-mohair yarn I love, and an "umbilical cord" hat pattern that's adorable--it's a pleasure to whip these little guys out.

It feels meaningful, too. As I'm knitting, stitch by stitch, I think about the parents-to-be and the little one readying him or herself to join the world. There's a meditative element to making the gift, much like knitting a prayer shawl (my father-in-law received one when he was undergoing chemotherapy, and I was filled with emotion as I thought about the people praying for him as they knit each stitch).

While those are fine reasons to be knitting my daughters' new brother a hat, I also have to acknowledge that this particular baby isn't just any baby, and his parents and siblings aren't just any family. Divorce has brought many realities into my life that I never thought I'd encounter--moments that make me step back and wonder "Is this really my life, because it's nothing like I imagined." Gradually I'm learning that the life we imagine for ourselves is either overly romantic or downright straightforward and unimaginative.

There's nothing romanticized or straightforward about this situation. My daughters--my flesh and blood, love-of-my-life babies--are going through a significant life transformation that has nothing (really) to do with me. How do I both be a part of it, as their mom, and step away from it, as not-the-baby's mom? How do I gather up and embrace all of their excitement and apprehension, while distancing myself from a family moment that isn't mine?

I've tried hard to not over-think it. Sometimes the more deliberate and thoughtful we are, the more awkward things feel. Leading up to the birth, I asked my girls from time to time about the preparations, and after the birth I took them to the hospital and looked at photos and cooed over how cute Baby is. Those seemed like natural ways to communicate what needed to be said.

And then there's the hat--more importantly, there was me knitting the hat in the evenings while the girls worked on homework and practiced cello and violin. They advised me on colors and stripe width, and watched the project progress from a ring of yarn to something that can actually be worn on a tiny head.

The hat is a small thing, but it's like strings of sentences not spoken or written, just worked out in yarn. What might those sentences, knit row by row, say? Well, they say to my girls "This baby brother is a treasure--I'm excited for you." They say "You were once little enough for this hat, and you will always be my babies." They say "Our families might be complicated, but that doesn't mean they aren't full of love and forgiveness and a hopeful future."

And the hat also says many other things--thoughts and feelings that can't really be put into words. Sometimes, after all, life is too mysterious, unexpected and beautiful for words.