Growing Pains

What is family? The question seems simple enough, so why has it shaken me to my core? My parents divorced when I was four years old. I don’t remember the divorce, or much of it. I remember splitting school vacations between my parent’s houses. I remember being a teenager, and joking about getting two Christmas mornings with twice the presents. My point is, I wasn’t traumatized by the divorce, and I was surrounded by love. My mother remarried when I was six. My stepfather became the man of the house. He became family. At eight, when all hope for a sibling was almost lost, I became a big sister.

Blended families are never easy. We weren’t perfect, but we loved each other. Growing up I sometimes felt like an outsider in our home. Christmas cards addressed to “The Gilson’s” and other subtle details would remind me that I came before “our family”. It wasn’t that I didn’t belong, but I sometimes felt like an addition. I loved going to visit my father as a child, but I was always scared of what I’d miss at home while I was away. There is no doubt that growing up I had two fathers. I had two men I could have called if my car was in a ditch. I had two men looking out for my best interest. By the time I turned 27 not only had I gotten used to having two fathers, I couldn’t imagine my adult life without either of them.

Jake and I got married in June, and I now have a blended family of my own. I can’t say I’d be able to love another child like my own because there are so many layers to parenthood. Being a parent to another man’s daughter isn’t black and white, and I commend my stepfather for loving me the best he knew how. Recently at my sister’s boot camp graduation I looked over at my stepfather and saw pride beaming from his eyes. He couldn’t hide how proud he was of his little girl, as he should have been. I realized on those bleachers that I’ll never make my stepfather proud. I was sure he’d be proud when I was the first in our family to graduate college with a Bachelors Degree. I couldn’t wait to tell him he was going to have a grandson, because I imagined all of the manly things they’d do together. Both events left me disappointed, but I’ve grown to know the connection isn’t there, and that’s okay. It’s okay because he did the best he could.

The day after Jake and I returned home from our honeymoon I learned my mother and stepfather were getting a divorce. The house, the pictures, the snowmobiles, camper, and memories were divided. I no longer have a key for my childhood home. My school pictures aren’t on the wall. My kids toys aren’t tucked away in the corner waiting for a weekend visit. It’s as if a stranger lives there. That stranger is my stepfather.

Our relationship ended with the divorce. His silence is a concrete reminder that I was never actually his. I don’t mean his by blood, you can’t change DNA. I mean, I was never HIS. He doesn’t wonder how my day was. He’s not interested in his two gorgeous grandchildren. There are no plans to see each other. Occasionally a text is exchanged, but there is no heart involved. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how much my parent’s divorce has impacted me even as an adult. It’s as if all of my childhood insecurities are resurfacing as I come to the realization that family isn’t always forever. Although our relationship was never perfect, My stepdad has been a constant part of my life for as long as I can remember, and rewiring my adult brain for a life without him is much harder than I expected.

So I’ll ask again? What the hell is family? And what do you do when someone you’ve grown to depend on, and love no longer wants to be family? When they decide they are happier without you and yours in their life?

You make your own damn family.

This year I’ve redefined what family is to the Girard’s. We were a family long before Jake and I tied the knot this summer. Marriage certainly doesn’t make a family, and neither does blood. The word “family” in this house has a broad definition. We blur friends and relatives together, because at the end of the day its the connections in our lives that matter the most. We choose the people that choose us. We know who is in our corner because they want to be, and my heart is extremely grateful for THESE people.

As I mourn the relationship I thought I had with my stepfather, and watch my mother piece together her broken heart, I try to remember the good times. And there were a lot of good times, which is part of what makes letting go so hard.

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