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Modern, Blended, Non-Brady Family - from Motherlode Blog on NY Times

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Motherlode - Adventures in Parenting

DECEMBER 22, 2013, 8:51 AM

Negotiating Pettiness and Heartache in the Modern, Blended, Non-Brady Family


“The Brady Bunch.” Remember them? At 42, I find myself the matriarch of a big, blended family (that is what we call it now), a Carol Brady for the 21st century. But here is my question: where exactly was Carol Brady’s ex-husband? Our theme song goes like this:

Here’s the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up two very lovely girls.
She was bored with her marriage, but loved her daughters, the youngest not yet 2.
Here’s the story of a man named Brady,

Who was busy with five kids of his own.

They were six people, living all together, yet they were all alone.
Till the one day this lady called this fellow, whom she’d loved since she was 18 years old.

She moved, divorced; they got together.

That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.

(Wait, that doesn’t scan perfectly, does it? Well, neither does life. And no, our name isn’t really Brady, either. Yet another reason we’re not ready for prime time.)

Then you would see all nine of us smiling and singing in blue boxes. That is, until the episode in which Peter decides he’s going to go live with his real mother. Then there would be eight boxes, eight smiling, singing heads. (Most of the time one box would be darkened because Bobby has a different mother than his brothers and he only lives with the Bradys every other weekend.) (Mike Brady was depicted as a widower in “The Brady Bunch.” Carol Brady’s marital history was resolutely undefined. This may be why.)

We are no sitcom. We are a man and a woman with five children who live with us the majority of the time, two children who don’t, and three exes with whom we must share them. Carol and Mike never had to share the children. There was an episode about a cursed tiki and a tarantula but never about an exchange on a street corner by the oleanders. The children never found themselves shuttled out of the midcentury marvel that Mike had designed to their other house, where they ate different food; watched different shows; identified with different races; had different friends, different clothes, different relatives, different religions; and were expected to be full citizens of both.

Our children are bilingual in the native languages of each parent: they speak both fluent kale and Vienna sausage, Mormonism and godlessness, gay and military, left and right, brown and white, Manhattan and desert. They are the lone emissaries of those lands and it is up to them to synthesize the country music and the hip hop, the Mountain Goats and George Michael, and to insist upon their dual citizenship, their very right to be who they are. The girls spend their vacations in New York on the beach with gay uncles, the boys in Montana eating cinnamon buns with grandparents, and Bobby heads to Universal Studios to visit Norman Bates. Then they come home here to us and try to relate.

It is a classic story: two parents claim a baby, King Solomon offers to cut the child in half. The wise king then awards the child to the parent who would rather relinquish him than see him halved. In the world of divorced child rearing, there is so little wisdom to be found. And it can feel more often like second solution prevailed: you get half the child and I get half the child. But really we’ve come up with a third solution: we ask the children to cut themselves in half.

Our family is bound together not by blood but by pure determination, by our own insistence that this group of people is a Family with a capital F. Family as an art project, not a blood test. And so we live atop a fault line where even the benign has the power to crack the foundation. The girls’ father mails them T-shirts, doughnuts, books. And the boys, upon seeing them, are crestfallen and try to bolster their own spirits, consoling themselves and swallowing their disappointment to be happy for their sisters. Or the boys are Facetiming their mother, taking her around the house, bringing her into our bedroom where we lie in bed. Hi! Nice to see you. How are you? It is a life fraught with conundrums, from the harmless to the alarming: Our 7-year-old returns from a weekend visit and reports that his mother keeps a gun in her car’s glove compartment. The bullets are under the seat. Wow. How to address that one? It is all too easy to lose hold of the only goal: to raise healthy, sane, vibrant children in a compromised world.

Sharing my children challenges every belief I hold about child rearing, about ethics, about kindness, about myself. It distills every petty feeling I have. It summons a smallness I find shameful. It is the stuff one shouldn’t dwell on. The stuff that, in an ideal world, you would set aside, were you an ideal person. Were you, say, holy.

There is no particular protocol for how we are all to treat each other. We are ex-family, new family, steps, formers, siblings, parents, children and the entirely uncategorizable. There is also a lot of animosity on all sides. And who, in their right mind, wants to wade through any of it? There is subterranean envy to navigate, undigested anger, history, proprietary presumptions. I would like things to be easier between all of us. And I understand the reasons they are not. I try to be gentle in my ways. I try to keep the children in mind. Sometimes I succeed. I wonder what we are teaching all of them, from the biggest to the smallest. It’s mind-boggling.

I tell myself that this fate, with all its heartache, is better than the other one would have been, that fantastical one where we somehow stayed with their parents, but when my son is wailing as he says, “I want my Mommy,” when my weeping daughter says, “I miss Daddy,” I feel the lie of the hug I am giving them. I tell them I know, I understand. I hold them tight, but what seems certain is that I have caused these tears, and wiping them away is peculiar penance. It feels monstrous.

I pride myself on being a reasonable and usually wise person. I am often intoxicated by my own capacity for empathy, for courage and magnanimity. I love being large. But I am too angry, at times, to reach out. I am too snide. In an ideal world, we all get along — there is parity, depth, forgiveness, best intentions, honor. We are compatible and fair, we support and agree, we are selfless and generous. The children don’t need two birthday parties because we can all celebrate the same child together, all host the same party, all raise the whole child. It seems like such a modest wish.

I, a girl who longs for a conclusion, a hopeful, wise spin, have no conclusion for this. I have no witty lines about Carol and Mike and Alice and Sam the butcher, no summation, no false cheer. All I have is a sense of vertigo and some resilience, a desire to love my children and tamp my personal smallness, to swallow my colossal guilt, to atone, to extend again, to always extend and to try to love my children more than I love my own fury or jealousy or politics or righteousness. To love them more than I love myself. It’s the most basic definition of raising a child. It sounds easier than it is.