I moved to Calgary in 2012 –  two years short of graduating high school – to live with my dad. My parents divorced when I was a baby, so young that I can’t even remember how old I was. I lived with my mother back in Ontario and I made the decision to come to Calgary because I felt I hadn’t gotten the same opportunity to live with my dad and experience this whole other life that he was a part of.

I spent almost every summer since I was five years old in this city with my father Larry, my stepmother Vicky and her two sons: my stepbrothers, Spencer and Shane. When I moved here, I assumed that was the extent of my family. It wasn’t until I was here that I realized my family extended far beyond that.

With seven marriages and five divorces, my family tree is hard to keep track of. With all of these new marriages, divorces and siblings, it was the beginning of my foray into a blended family – a family archetype on the rise in Canada that provided me with unexpected benefits and friendship.

New traditions

I don’t remember when or why I started participating in family events with my stepbrother’s side of the family, but when I moved here, I was simply accepted as another relative. I celebrate Christmas with them on Dec. 24, and on Christmas Day, we all go back to our home of residence and celebrate again with another part of our families.

One of the many traditions I share with my family is celebrating holidays twice. Christmas is one that gets celebrated on the 23rd and 24th of December. The family goes skating on the 23rd prior to heading home for food and the first Christmas Eve. Carla’s mother [left], Max Nealon [middle] and the author [right] take a break from skating on December 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Carla Belanger.

My stepbrother’s half-sister, Raine, who I colloquially refer to as my stepsister to make it simpler to understand, is the only one who stays at her mother Carla’s house on Christmas. She doesn’t regularly see her father anymore, so she doesn’t visit him during the holidays.

“That’s like the most depressing day of the year for me, honestly. I try to work that day or try to do other things that day. Being with just my mom or just my dad, that wouldn’t function well for me because I’m just not used to that. I don’t ever desire that. I [wouldn’t] like being an only child, that would suck,” Raine explains to me, as we sit across from each other in Eau Claire Market, eating ice cream before we see a movie.

It’s something that not everybody may be able to understand. For Raine, her family has always been blended together. When she was born she already had two half-brothers, Spencer and Shane, from her dad’s side, and another two half-brothers, Kelsey and Max, from her mom’s side. Both her parents had already been divorced from other people. When I came into the picture, it wasn’t a big deal to her.

“I was kind of sad at first, because I was like, ‘She’s replacing me,’ but then we were all friends, and I was like, ‘Why did I think that?’” Raine, 18, laughs along with me.

“There’s so many different branches of our family, so it’s just really natural to me to just involve everyone because that’s just what I’ve been doing since my birth … my whole entire life, everyone is involved,” she explains.

At the centre of all of this is Carla Belanger, Raine’s mom. Her home and her family is the middle of the blended, chosen family that we have all decided to be a part of.

“Just the whole idea of a big family really appeals to me. I just like the fact that we’re big together, and I think we all kind of like it, I think we’re all kind of proud of it,” Carla explains to me as we sit on her living room loveseat together.

“It adds value to me because it just makes my life richer.”

I often wonder why she Carla invited me to be a part of her family. In retrospect, there was no formal invitation, but rather she made me feel welcome in her home. I felt like a big family added value to my life too, which is why I chose to be a part of it. According to Carla, I brought value to them as well.

“You know, I remember you – I think it was the first Christmas you were here – what you added to the party. I think you guys were playing Charades or something like that – anyways, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Amber’s really added to this family.’ You were just so into it!”

A chaotic family tree

Here’s how a family gets so complicated: divorce. My mom was married to my father, divorced when I was a baby, and both got remarried to another spouse. My mom divorced her second husband and now lives alone with my two half-brothers in Ontario. My dad remarried a woman who was previously divorced, and her husband, my stepbrother’s father, remarried to a woman who had also previously been married. They had a child, separated twice and now we have a family of eight to 10 children, depending on who you include, in which all of us have different mothers and fathers.

The more appropriate term for the my family tree might be family forest. The top part is all the parents who are together and separated, while the bottom part is all the children resulting from those relationships. Illustration by Amber McLinden.

What I consider my family now includes my mother, Robin Dewey; my two half-brothers, Owen and AJ Ellis, who live in Ontario, where I am from; my dad, Larry McLinden; my stepmother, Vicky Van Heyningen; her two children, my stepbrothers Spencer and Shane Belanger; my stepmom’s ex-husband, Rick Belanger, re-married to Carla Belanger, who had two children from her prior marriage, Kelsey and Max Nealon, and had one child with him, Raine Belanger.

If it’s confusing to you, know you are not alone. All my friends, even ones who share relationships with a few of us, are confused about how we are all related. To put it simply, I am not related to Carla, but she is my stepbrother’s stepmother. To me, they’re family because they accepted me into their home and treated me like family, despite there being no blood relation.

Are we the exception?

It’s a common misconception that blended families are more likely to be fragile and existing in a constant state of dysfunction, yet the research suggests otherwise.

Statistics Canada defines a family as “a married couple and the children, if any, of either and/or both spouses; a couple living common law and the children, if any, of either and/or both partners; or a lone parent of any marital status with at least one child living in the same dwelling and that child or those children.”

While Statistics Canada doesn’t have a definition for the kind of family I’m a part of, they do, however, define the term “stepfamilies” as “children of the father and of the mother born or adopted in a previous union. No children born or adopted in the current union.” With the exclusion of Raine, that’s pretty much what we are.

The number of parents in complex stepfamilies was at a staggering 51 per cent of all stepfamilies in 2011. Of all families in Canada, 12.6 per cent of those were comprised of some form of stepfamily.  According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of stepfamilies is growing, and so is the complexity of the family.

A study conducted in Montreal in 2001 defined our family a little better than Statistics Canada, with the term “blended family.” This includes Raine, stating that a blended family is a family composed of both stepchildren and children born from the new union of two parents.

“Being born into a blended family may expose children to higher risk of family breakdown than if they had been born to parents in an intact family; however, it also means that they have experienced parents, and at least one brother or sister, something denied to growing numbers of children born into intact families,” the study states.

For a brief part of my life, it was just me, my mother and my father. The memory is only captured through photo because my parents divorced when I was very young. Robin Dewey [left] and Larry McLinden [right] holding myself as a baby. Photo courtesy of Amber McLinden.

Another study in the book Sourcebook of Family Research and Theory explains the importance of chosen family, a concept many associate with LGBTQ+ individuals who don’t have a biological family to fall back on, by stating “Carrington cautions us against seeing these chosen families as ‘a rough approximation of the real thing,’ adding that often ‘these bonds are far more extensive’ than what most heterosexual people understand as friendship.”

Indigenous families offer a much broader definition of family. A report for child welfare workers who work alongside these families defines “community family,” as “the members of the First Nations community.” They also might have an auntie or grandmother who has the same nurturing role as a mother or father. Extended family, the community, or even the clan system or greater nation can have a role in raising a child.

It isn’t as uncommon as you may think, and many communities have been doing it for decades. Realistically, biology doesn’t define all families. For my family, a blend of all these definitions, and not one alone, defines who we are.

Choosing your family

Raine, Carla and myself all agree being able to pick who we consider family has created a much stronger bond in the face of the adversity our family has faced.

“I think divorcing doesn’t automatically make life happy,” explains Carla, “and I don’t think staying together forever necessarily makes life happy either.”

Divorce is something we mostly understand as a necessary evil, but of course, we wish it wasn’t something we had to go through. A common experience we all share – family who has trouble with addiction, alcoholism, and in some cases, abuse. Understanding that in any situation, we have the choice to stay or leave, is far more bonding than our biological connections.

Carla hopes her children learn to cherish the bond of family, regardless of if those bonds are made by blood or by choice.

“The importance of making an effort to maintain family ties. It doesn’t take much but I think it’s easy to get into our adult lives and months go by and we don’t connect. I hope we all take away that the connection of the big family is something to work to keep.”

She adds, “that’s why I don’t want to get rid of this big house, too. I had a friend of mine who, her husband, I was telling him about it, he said, ‘Well, it sounds like your house breathes and it expands at certain times and then it shrinks down at other times.’”

“Sometimes I’m here all alone, which is fine, but I love the times when it expands more.”

amclinden@cjournal.ca

Editor: Whitney Cullingham | wcullingham@cjournal.ca