Redefining family

Thank you so much for the kind condolences (and hilarious stories) on yesterday’s post about Nat. It really did offer a huge, bright ray of light in an otherwise icky sort of a day.

This morning I woke up thinking about him. About the idea of a stepgrandfather. About how the language we use to describe our families in 2011 often seems  so very inadequate.

There were moments yesterday that I felt inclined to correct a few of kind words from friends about my “grandfather”–he wasn’t exactly my grandfather. But then, he wasn’t some sort of sub-grandfather either; some lesser grandfather, deserving of lesser well wishes. He was a grandfather. Just not a grandfather I was born to.

How do we say that in less than a paragraph?

There are so many people like this in our 21st century family lives now, aren’t there? Cousins, Second cousins, cousins through marriage and divorce. Ex-husbands of aunts, former in-laws, future in-laws, and of course all those wonderful step-everythings. But for every qualifier that more tightly defines our relationship, ironically, it seems to suggest a less tight relationship.

In my family, stepparents are integral part of our lives. (Welcome, fellow children of divorce!) My children don’t distinguish much between Papa and Grandpa and Grandpa David, any more than I used to think of my father’s stepmother as a lesser Grandma. In fact, when my grandfather died the year I turned 13 and she immediately disowned our side of the family, it was crushing; all I knew is that my Grandma didn’t want us anymore.

She lost her right to the title after that. I referred to her as Roslyn from then on.

But that’s the exception. In fact, I have been wildly fortunate to have the step-family I do today, because they love me and my children as if we were blood relatives.

In fact I recall I used to get a big twinge of discomfort when my stepmother introduced me and my brother as her kids. It was as if I was being disloyal to my mother somehow by accepting her label without correction. It took me some time to realize it wasn’t territorial–it was a compliment. It was Amye’s way of bestowing unequivocal love on us. While she wasn’t my mother, of course, we were still the only kids she would ever have in her life.

Now that friends my age are stepparents themselves, and seeing them refer to their stepchildren as their own, I get it. I finally do.

The problem isn’t the relationship. It’s the limited words we have to describe it.

It’s not just a step-issue either.  I wish there were a distinction between cousins and Cousins–the latter being those people you can’t imagine life without. I only have 4 of them on my mother’s side (they’re the ones I’m closest with) and we grew up as tight as could be, putting on elaborate shows for the family at any given holiday, making Momsie laugh until she cried, and creating inside jokes we still share that no one can ever understand.

The cousins c 1976
The cousins circa 1976 with Momsie and Popsie. Nice elf outfit, Erin.

Even today as adults, my Cousins’ successes feel like my successes. Their babies feel like my nieces and nephews. Even one of them absent from a single family event creates a void we all feel. I imagine I love them harder than most people do their own siblings.

(Oh and have I bragged about my cousin Ryan lately? Three words: Jeff Buckley screenplay. Hello.)

I don’t want my cousins to have the same title that people give to their distant uncle’s 16 kids who live in Romania that they’ve only seen once. I want them to have a special name. A name befitting of the relationship. Like a name I wish I had for Nat.

Things really are different in the 21st century, aren’t they.


25 thoughts on “Redefining family”

  1. It’s tough. Our girls have aunts and uncles that aren’t that, but they seem more dear than their first name can convey. We add “my.” So our girls will say, “She’s our Debbie.” It wraps them into family and needs no explanation as the love is in the proclamation of *mine* and the description of being part of our family or our circle.

    It works for us.

  2. Agreed on all counts, including the cousins!

    I too am a child of divorce and as a result my daughter has 5 excellent grandparents. She calls my Stepfather “Dutch”, a name of MY choosing. I picked it because when he and my mom started dating (I was in high school) he used to say he was my Dutch Uncle, and I thought it would be easy for her to say as a toddler. I like that it’s our inside joke that gets retold every time she talks to or about him.

    Also, I really wanted him to have a special name, however I knew that my Dad and Father In Law were really looking forward to being called Grandpa and Pop.

    Great post. And I am sorry for the loss of your grandfather. It is hard.

  3. Reminds me of how I call my mom’s first cousins and best friend from high school aunts and uncles. They’re not, obviously, but we were all so close when I was younger that it didn’t seem right for a little kid like me to just call them by their first name without the aunt or uncle prefix. And now that I think about it, I don’t know that it was something I was taught to call them. I just did, because they seemed like aunts and uncles.

  4. I refer to my son-in-law’s older daughters as my bonus granddaughters, but only when explaining that my 14-year-old and 11-year-old granddaughters aren’t my 30-year-old daughter’s children by birth. When my daughter was pregnant with her first daughter, my then-8-year-old granddaughter asked her mother what it meant to be a “half-sister”. Her mother explained it, but also told her that our family doesn’t make that distinction–that her sisters are her sisters. The funny thing was that for awhile after the discussion, the 8-year-old referred to my daughter as her “half-mom”!

  5. In a word, YES.
    It’s awkward, having a dad who was not present and a stepdad who was. I’m way closer to the stepdad, I call him my dad, but then calling my biodad a dad feels weird. Sometimes, I avoid the whole issue – I inadvertantly skipped father’s day this year, and had no one “give me away” at my wedding. The step grands were part of my life, I never met the bio grands to my memory (though reportedly a couple of times as a baby). Those cousins were part of my childhood, my moms nieces and nephews too far away to know well. How to quantify and label all that?

    1. It’s kind of a bummer to have to avoid it all to avoid hurting any feelings.

      I really wish we had better words.

  6. Yes. YES. Yes! Yes and yes.
    Follow this:
    My father was married and had 3 kids. Divorced, no custody. My mom was married & had 1 kid. Divorced, full custody.
    Married each other. Had 2 kids, me being the last. So I have 1 “full” bother. 1 “half” brother by my mom. 2 “half” sisters and 1 “half” brother by my father.
    But to me? My whole life? They are My Brothers And Sisters.
    Did I get to see them all the time my whole life? Absolutely not. but this was not my decision or (for the most part) theirs. But it didn’t change a thing. This half, whole, step, whatever? Doesn’t count to me. We’re a family.
    And my BFF since we were 15yo? She is like a sister. She is family, too.
    I think we need to work on a new, encompassing language of love and family to help describe the people in our lives. My “half” siblings & me, as a “half” sibling, deserve it.

  7. It’s complicated in so many settings. My grandparents best friends were like a second set of grandparents. The only survivor of the four is my grandma’s best friend. When she goes, I will be devastated, but to explain that she was “my grandma’s best friend” makes it sound a bit like I’m mourning my gynecologist’s cat or something.

    I’m sorry about your step-grandfather. It hurts to lose the people we love.

  8. First, I am sorry for your loss. Whatever the title, the love is there.

    Family labels are so in need of a revamp. What do I call my mom’s brothers’s ex-wife–she was my aunt until I was 20, but then divorce removes that name. Or better? What do I call my step-dad, the man who was my day to day father from the time I was 6…until the day he and my mom divorced? Step-dad is no longer technically correct. But there is no label for the family that has been created from those fractures.

    Family trees in the 21st century isn’t a single branched affair anymore, and I wish we could find new ways to describe the relationships that are created!

  9. You are my beloved Daughter/StepDaughter and yes, I think you do get it. There isn’t the right word/s…
    I couldn’t love you more if we had the same blood. And as you know, I love hard; and hopefully well.

  10. I really appreciated reading this. My mom just got remarried to man whose children are, technically, his ex-stepchildren. The relationship has always baffled me. (I live in a different state from my mom & him and they live in a different state from his children, so I never was able to “see” the relationship.) Coming from a very small family with parents who were together until my dad died (though I don’t hold that up as the “right” way; they were very unhappy at the end), “step-” families isn’t something I know much about. And, particularly because his children were already grown when he married their mother, I had a hard time understanding what their relationship was and how it worked.

    But you’re right. It doesn’t matter…shouldn’t matter. They love him and see him as a father figure, and that’s all that matters. Thank you for that reminder.

  11. Let’s see, at last count three stepfathers, one real father, one stepmother, one real mother, three stepbrothers, two stepsisters, one half brother, two grandpas, two stepgrandpas, one stepgrandma, two real grandmas and don’t get me started on the aunts, uncles and cousins…let’s just call this family tree/flow chart California in the wife-swapping, martinis-for-lunch, EST retreat, nudist colony, polyester plaid wearin’, swinging 70s.

    I wouldn’tve missed a one of those folks.

  12. I’m currently struggling with this lack of titles. My parents have been married for over 40 years and I am about to get married for the 2nd time (gasp!). I have 2 children and HATE that they will call my fabulous husband-to-be by his first name. My ex-husband is their dad (although, he doesn’t always remember that) but I hate that the man who will be there EVERY day, giving advice, cooking dinners, mending wounded hearts, teaching them to drive (double gasp!) will be a name and not a title that represents the importance of his role in our family. We need a new language of families that represents the love and not just the biology!

  13. This post is so appropriate for my situation right now and it has decided something for me.

    My fiance and I are getting married next month. I was preparing what I would like printed on our wedding programs. One of the pages includes a tribute to the grandparents we’ve lost who will not be with us on our wedding day. My fiance’s biological grandfather died before he was born. And so he grew up knowing his step grandfather. He was close to him, and last year, he too passed away. I have been deliberating on how to refer to his “step” grandfather on our wedding programs. And after reading this my decision is that we will refer to him as my fiance’s grandfather. A term he absolutely earned.

  14. Just for the record…I have stopped letting my mother dress me 😉
    Hugs and Kisses from one of the six bestest grandchildren Momsie and Popsie could have ask for. Pillow People Forever!!!

  15. I love this post. I’m not sure I have any ideas…however coming from a hugely dysfunctional titled family myself, I understand this. People use step or half or second as not so nice words sometimes. Acting as if that person is less a figure in your life, because they aren’t a full blood relative. It’s just not so black and white.

    I’m sorry about your Grandpa.

  16. I love reading this post to get to know you better and where you came from. Thanks for sharing that with us here.

    And I’m sorry for you loss Liz, he sounds like an incredible Grandparent, “step” or otherwise… xo

  17. We need to check the Yiddish language because there are some gems! My favorite is Machatunim which describes the relationship between in-laws (the parents or stepparents of both people in a couple). There is no English equivalent.

    In my house I was very confused because my parents had me call their close friends “aunt” or “uncle”. I was probably 11 before I realized we weren’t related!

  18. It’s strange when language fails us, when it fails to work the magic we want it to, to get to the depth we need it to.

    But you’re making it happen for us, so thank you.

  19. Since I’m a cultural historian, I just have to add: stepfamilies aren’t a 21st-century problem. Before 1900, the average American marriage lasted ten years. Ten years! Those earlier marriages tended to end due to death, not divorce (there were a whole lot of women dying in childbirth), but that simple statistic puts our own marriages in perspective, I think: whenever marriages survive longer than 10 years, it is truly a cause for celebration. That ten-years statistic also explains why there are so many stepfamilies in old stories, not just new ones.

    Not that older people had any better language, unfortunately. But I notice that my friends from other countries tend to throw around terms like “auntie” and “cousin” a lot more easily than English-speakers do. Maybe it’s time to return those terms to their all-purpose meanings.

  20. Love this. Feel this. Live this. Oh, I do…

    Make up your own titles – “Papa” could be a father, grandfather, stepfather etc. Or give up titles completely. I tend to just use “family” – she is “family”. I suppose along the line of not being traditional, I quit caring if it made sense to anyone else. Although I must admit it made me smile to hear my mom say “S-man? He is just S-man” accepting it without explaining. It reminds me of your stories from Kosovo… even if you never spoke to those women again, they are forever a part of you which connects them to you deeply. Titles are meant to communicate relationships quickly, but real relationships always need deep explanation.

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