Last Christmas day, my husband Duncan and I stayed home, just the two of us, opening presents, overeating, napping. By contrast, my friend Melanie spent the day with her brother and his new wife. Also present were his new wife's siblings, their spouses and children (including those from previous relationships), her divorced parents, their new spouses and children, and a random grandparent or two. Although at this point I couldn't quite figure out who belonged with whom, it was clear that Melanie was describing an idyllic holiday scene: good music, great food, and lots of laughter.
Everyone exchanged presents—and not just those related by blood, or even marriage. Somehow, this family had decided they all belonged to each other. I wondered how. Later the same week, I ran into my friend Will. The holidays had been rough—he was going through a dreadful divorce—but he and his soon-to-be ex-wife had made a commitment to spend important occasions together. So, as planned, he arrived at her house on Christmas morning to open presents with their children.
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"Didn't that feel weird?" I asked. It did, he admitted, but his ex had grown up this way—with her divorced parents getting together with their children on birthdays and Christmas, eventually bringing new spouses, new children, and new in-laws. I asked him where he thought his family began and ended now. "Not sure," he said.
As more and more people find themselves in "nontraditional" relationships—that is, any setup other than a young, heterosexual couple marrying in order to have children—the definition of family becomes increasingly unclear. Most define the notion as relatives first, children second, and shared values a distant third. But for the people I know, it's not that simple. In a time when divorce, adoption, and same-sex unions have become the norm, many of us will by necessity be forced to find a way to make each other feel like we belong to each other. But as I've learned, it's possible. My husband Duncan and I are typical of today's complex, non-traditional marriages. I'm his second wife, and stepmother to his son; we have no children of our own. I grew up Jewish, he Episcopalian. I am a longtime, committed Buddhist practitioner; he's an atheist.