Sunday, September 04, 2016

The "new normal" - divorced/remarried/blended/mixed/messed-up families

[This post has nothing to do with Israel but everything to do with me. I figured if Mayim can put herself out there so personally, so can I. :-)]

I saw a video the other day posted by Mayim Bialik about how she and her ex-husband are managing to construct a family dynamic filled with love and respect, raising their children together after their divorce, even spending religious holidays together.

This got me thinking about my situation after my divorce – and remarriage – and about how the "new normal" in family life poses so many challenges to so many of us these days.

According to recent statistics, more marriages end in divorce in America today than last the lifetime they were supposedly intended to.* It's a tragic and disturbing reality – certainly for those of us, married or otherwise, who see the institution of marriage as just that: forever.

And the challenges this reality poses are significant. How to spend vacation and religious festivals, and with whom, is only the tip of the iceberg. Dividing time and attention between various children and other family members, celebrating personal events like birthdays or graduations twice or sometimes three times, to accommodate various groupings, is also surmountable. Jason Mraz has a song which acknowledges the benefits of two birthday parties and the like (though the song itself deals mostly with many of the more depressing and negative aspects of a split family).

What I really liked about Mayim's post - liked, admire and respect - is how candid she is about their priorities; and about how they don't really care what other people think. For someone in any society to say "that's not normal" when divorced parents decide to share family events together, is not only insensitive; It's downright cruel. The perfect family unit – parents and children, grandparents and aunts and uncles and the whole wider family tree - doesn't necessarily disintegrate just because a husband and wife decide they no longer wish to live together.

We have divorced friends who spend Friday night Shabbat dinner - almost a paradigm of "family time" in the Jewish world, at whatever level of observance - together with their only son in his twenties, with his and their friends. It's different, yes - but it is beautiful and wonderful, no less than the "difference" involved in other friends where she is Orthodox-observant and he is less observant, or our two gay friends raising their child together, or my Jewish cousin who built a marvelous and loving family with a Catholic spouse.

I know someone who refers to his sister's kids as "my nephews" and his wife's sister's kids as "her nephews". Seriously? After decades of love and connection, after celebrating births and bat mitzvahs together, taking vacations and trips, commiserating over siblings and parents and children and arguing politics and helping each other out in times of need, I am closer to my (former) brother- and sister-in-law, mother- and father-in-law, and my nieces, then to almost anyone else in the world.

These are family, with ties that bind which are as strong and sometimes stronger than blood. Today they may be my "outlaws" - but that didn't prevent me from flying over to attend Dad's funeral. Not to have been there - to pay my last respects, to support our kids and all the family, to accompany one of my best friends on the planet and truly my second father on his last journey, would have been unthinkable.

It is true that I have been lucky, and have worked hard as well, to effect an amicable divorce and to maintain friendly relations with my former wife, after the initial pain and suffering (and even with the occasional relapse). It's a bit of an anomaly, it's true; most of the divorces I'm familiar with are unhappy, angry things which end in remorse and bitterness. But even those often evolve into situations of cool tolerance if not genuine warmth.

There are so many of these split, then sometimes blended (and sometimes just parallel, somewhat connected but not mixed) families around us. Each finds its own way to address the challenges of maintaining closeness and intimacy, creating new relationships with new spouses or children or parents or friends, and balancing the demands of two households (or sometimes three, or even four, if a child of divorced parents marries a partner who's folks are also split, let alone re-married!).

These challenges are hard enough without members of the extended family saying "we can't do this since you're divorced" regarding some joint event or other. In some situations it may be true, where a divorced couple are full of hostility or the wider family have taken sides in nasty custody or financial battles. But where a couple has managed - selflessly and at great emotional cost - to construct a modus operandi which reduces conflict and engenders love and warmth, it's so much healthier not only for them and for their children and parents but for all their wider family and even community.

As the children meet their own challenges of coming to terms with their new split-family situation - and this can take years, and may require help and a lot of sympathy and patience - the rest of the world, family and friends, would do them and themselves a great service, to leave their pre-conceived notions of what's "done" aside, out of love for all involved.

The new normal is not a nuclear family; it's a messed up, messy, beautiful, fascinating, exciting, challenging, frightening, painful and exhilarating roller coaster ride of relationships bent and broken, repaired and rebuilt anew in amazing forms most of us never considered or imagined - certainly not for ourselves. Let's accept - and enjoy, and even celebrate - this new normal, and get on with the business of living and loving our children and families, however they're constructed.

*Statisticians argue; some say 50% of new marriages and 60% of second marriages, others a bit higher or lower. And these numbers don't reflect the (growing, by all reports) number of couples who don't even bother to get married in the first place. The rest of the western world is even worse-off. For the purpose of this article and argument, exact numbers aren't relevant; the point is there are at least as many divided/split/re-married/blended/mixed families as traditional married-once-and-forever families.

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