Guest blog by Suzy Ashworth (www.ourpsl.co.uk)
Happy new year, world! Let me tell you my Christmas story. Like the original one, it’s about a non-traditional family, although it doesn’t have any donkeys or shepherds in it. There are plenty of presents, though, and you can make up your own mind about the presence or absence of wise men.
My family is what some would call ‘blended’, although some might also perhaps call ‘food-processed by a 20-yr old Kenwood that could do with a bit of a tune up’. Let’s start with my own set-up. My partner and I each have a child from our previous relationships, both primary-aged girls. To date we’ve alternated Christmas plans with our co-parents: last year we had the week between school break-up and Christmas morning, and they had Christmas morning to New Year’s Day. That meant that this year we were on our own in the house in the run-up to the Big Day.
It was weird. We pottered around the kitchen on Christmas Eve singing along to Shakin’ Stevens and prepping all the vegetables, making puddings and arranging starters for the next day’s turkey lunch. In the meantime, the children were running their other parents ragged. The little darlings arrived just before lunch on Christmas Day and were impeccably behaved: they even waited until after lunch to open their presents (we know full well this was because they had that middle-class primary-school disease ‘present fatigue’, but it was rather convenient). My daughter’s father (my ex-husband) brought over a bottle of champagne when dropping her off, and stayed for a while to chat with my father and stepmother, who had also just arrived to celebrate with us and whom he hadn’t seen for a while.
We had a delightful couple of days with my father and stepmother, before trekking down to the South Coast to see my sister’s family and my mother. We would have loved my mother to be with us for Christmas, but she had come two years before, the last time we had the children for Christmas Day. It was my father’s turn to be invited this time – I hadn’t had Christmas with him for 6 years. Sadly, although my parents separated nearly 20 years ago now, my mother and step-mother do not mix well and so it was impossible to have everyone together. So we went South to have our second Christmas – which was in fact the children’s third, as they had had one with their other parents before ours – with my sister, brother-in-law, two nieces and my mother. It was a bittersweet occasion as my mum lost her mother (my grandma, the children’s great-grandma) and sister (my aunt, the children’s great-aunt) in 2011, but there’s nothing like the bald enthusiasm of four small girls to focus one’s mind on the future.
The next day, we drove back up to South London where we had lunch with my partner’s father and his partner and her daughter, and my partner’s elderly great-uncle (the children’s great-great uncle – are you still with me?), before going to the pantomime with my partner’s father and his partner, my partner’s mother and stepfather, and our two children. Although my partner’s father and mother didn’t speak to each other for 15 years after they divorced when he was the same age as our children are now, luckily they have since been able to put all that behind them and are now good friends, regularly inviting each other to get-togethers and events with or without us being around. Then we went to my partner’s mother’s house for third/fourth Christmas with his mother and step-father, and their best friends and their best friends’ elderly mother. Sadly, we weren’t able to catch up this time with my partner’s half-sister on his mother’s side or half-brother on his father’s side. The next day, my partner’s mother went to visit his father’s sister (my partner’s aunt, the children’s great-aunt), with whom his father doesn’t really engage.
Although I suspect that this will be a familiar schedule for more of you than one might at first expect, for some of you, this will sound like a complete nightmare. I often wonder myself how we keep track of all the people in our family! But to us, it’s normal – just the way things are. It’s normal to the kids too, and I’m sure that’s predominantly because we’re honest with them and generally we all do our best to have business-like relationships with our former partners for the sake of the next generation. That’s not to say there aren’t good days and bad days for all of us – it appears that co-parenting can raise difficult issues whether your children are in single-digits or in their late 30s… However, although none of us would have expected our families to have worked out this way, this is us – and that’s ok.
Relationships evolve and dissolve, ebb and flow, and children are very adaptable. Research has shown that in family flux, the key thing is not protecting children from change, it’s protecting them from conflict. Families can be crazy, gnarled, nobbly things, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work in all of their glorious forms, if everyone makes the effort to remain focused on the children.
The one major rule in our family is that both of the children are treated equally, no matter what their specific genetic provenance. This means that my children have four sets of grandparents rather than two, plenty of uncles and aunts and great-relatives, and two sets of parents each. They both have step-siblings and one has a half-sibling. So many more people to love them, look after them, have fun with them and help them learn and grow. So many more presents at Christmas!
Interestingly, it seemed to be my grandmother (who passed away last year) who grasped most quickly that my step-daughter was an equal in her family, and was thrilled to have her. I often wondered if it was her experiences of the evacuations during the Second World War that made her so accepting – to her they were all just children, the more the merrier. Bringing up children used to be much more a community practice than it is today. While I accept that broken relationships and their economic and social consequences can have a significant effect on children’s life chances, I do hope that the greater likelihood of blended families these days can help to bring some of that community-parenting spirit back even if it starts only on a small scale with individual extended families. If society were less hung-up on genetic succession, officially-papered relationships and more positive about social parenting, I wonder what the effect on the next generation would be?