“Can I ask you something?” she whispered, walking closer to me as I stood on her front lawn, waiting for my two oldest daughters to gather their belongings following a school club activity.

“Of course. What’s up?” I answered, bracing myself for whatever personal question she was getting ready to ask me about my girls.

“You said your husband adopted your daughter. But I know she sees her dad in Orlando sometimes… and I think she has sisters there?” she trailed off.

“Yes… so what’s the question?”

“Well, I guess I just wondered what that’s all about. Like, I’m just curious.”

It’s not the first, or last, time someone has asked me a question like this about my combined family that includes five kids and parents (in addition to my husband and I) who live in other cities. Our particular arrangement confuses people, particularly because we don’t usually stop to explain it.

I answered her surface question and it led to a longer conversation. Divorced and remarried herself, the mom wanted to know how we manage it all in our house. She mentioned that people in our area, and at our particular elementary school, tend to be married or single. There aren’t many people with combined families, like ours.

“And I don’t mean it in a bad way, but it surprised me that you’re the PTO president and you have a combined family. I mean, I don’t know why it did. It just didn’t seem typical.”

I appreciated her honesty. Our family isn’t typical. Every family has its complexities but ours is a little more layered than people are used to, especially at elementary school level.

I think what makes our combined family particularly unusual is that all of the parents are “okay” with the setup, and on good terms with each other. People are used to divorced parents fighting or former wives hating new ones or custody/money battles being the norm. It’s hard when families have many different branches – and emotions can run high in these arrangements. I get it.

We aren’t any better than other combined/divorced families that deal with these issues but our circle has been blessed with parents who amicably split (or have come to an amicable status over time), parents who are well employed, and parents who consciously decided somewhere along the way to release resentment (which is hard!) in favor of a better childhood for all the kids involved.

There are times when five parents are at a family event or recital – myself, my husband, his ex-wife (my two stepkids’ mother), my daughter’s dad and his wife (her stepmother). We all show up for our kids and sit together and take big family photos and tag each other in posts from the events on Facebook and Instagram.

Recently, my son’s school hosted a mother-son event and his (real) mom was able to attend. I volunteered my time at the event and then got the chance to have my photo taken with my son by a professional photographer. His mom graciously stepped aside so I could have a photo of just he and I, then she rejoined us so we could all have a photo together. The photographer doesn’t know any of us personally and she was obviously moved, telling us how wonderful she thought it was that we were in these photos together.

As we were walking away, my co-mom Nikki joked, “Well she either figured out that you’re his stepmom, or she thinks we’re lesbians.” We laughed. It wouldn’t be the first time someone assumed that about us as we frequent restaurants or amusements parks with the five kids together. On days my husband works, we often meet up (and with the stepmom on the other side, too, and her two daughters) and have one big party with seven kids wherever we are. It works out great – someone stays near the kids who are age 5 and under, someone else watches the older ones and the third one is usually taking someone to the bathroom. I trust these moms with my kids and I know they trust me with theirs.

A few years ago, Nikki gave me a really nice Mother’s Day card that thanked me for taking such good care of her babies when they are with us. Moved by the card and gesture, I thanked her in person. She said something that fundamentally changed how I viewed our relationship, and how I view mine with my daughter’s stepmother.

She said: “I always appreciated that my mother and stepmother got along. It made it ‘okay’ for me as a child to be able to love them both.”

Yes. That’s what I want too. I want for my kids to have MORE people who love and care about them. MORE people who come to recitals and birthday parties and graduations. MORE people who they can call (text) to help them figure out life and MORE people who will step up if there’s ever a time in my kids’ childhood that I can’t be there for them.

Our family is complicated and the relationship history of the parents is rocky in some chapters.

The childhood we’re collectively providing for our kids unites us though.

How do you navigate issues in your combined family?

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Category: Combined Families

Tags: combined families