Tangled Family Ties: Staying in Touch with Ex-Step Siblings?

by Risa Green

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Family is such a strange thing in the age of divorce. 

My mother remarried when I was in my twenties, and I gained three new step-siblings as a result.  But because we were all adults, living in various parts of the world, I’ve never met them.  Couldn’t pick them out of a line-up.

My mother-in-law also re-married after my husband’s father died, and my husband picked up three new step-siblings, as well.  But because we all live in Los Angeles, his step-siblings are as close to me real ones.  

When I first came to LA with my husband almost twenty summers ago, we stayed for a month in his mother and step-father’s house, along with his two step-brothers who were also home from college for the summer.  The four of us, along with my husband’s sister, hung out together non-stop.  We went to bars, we barbecued in the backyard, we stayed up talking late at night, and we occasionally fought.  I can specifically recall a massive blow-up with my brother-in-law Mike, over what temperature to keep the thermostat at night.  We were, we often joked, an older, much cooler version of the Brady Bunch.

Over the years, as we’ve gotten married and had kids, gone to grad school, picked up time-consuming jobs that require lots of travel, and moved to different areas of LA, it’s been harder to see each other as much as we’d like to.  But still, we always get together for Thanksgiving, for birthdays, and for the occasional Sunday night dinner.

We’ve been in each others’ weddings; my kids refer to them as their uncles.  Since my husband’s father passed away before I could ever meet him, my husband’s step-father is the only father-in-law I’ve ever had.  My kids call him Grandpa.  But now, he and my mother-in-law are getting divorced, and the question we all keep asking each other is, now what?

When a traditional family goes through a divorce, the children stay together, united in their loyalty to both mom and dad.  But when only one parent is truly your parent, and when your families got together not when you were young children but when you were already in your twenties, what happens when they split up? 

In a traditional divorce, the kids would go together to mom’s house for Thanksgiving, and to Dad’s for Christmas.  But this year, my husband and I had Thanksgiving with his mom, and his step-siblings (ex-step-siblings?) celebrated with their dad.  It was so weird.  And still, the question remains, what do we do now? 

We can remain friends, of course, but the truth is that we’re not family anymore, or at least, not in the traditional sense.  We can’t do the things that families normally do, even in the face of divorce, because our loyalties are, by necessity, divided.  It’s hard to maintain family relationships when you don’t have holidays as a default time to get-together. 

As much as I’d like to think that my kids will maintain some sort of relationship with my ex-father-in-law, the truth is that he’s now their ex-grandpa, and they probably won’t.  In this modern world of blended families, of steps and halves and partners, there are already a lot of guidelines that have been forged over the years.  But in this particular instance, I think we’re going to have to figure this one out for ourselves.

Hallmark, I’ve got a new holiday for you to invent: Ex-Step Family Day.

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