When you hear “traditional family,” what comes to mind? A mother and father, 2.5 kids, a cat, a dog, a white picket fence around your property and a huge framed “dream-wedding” picture in the living room? This all sounds romantic, prosaic and vanilla. The old school notion of what constitutes a family is one that still pervades our culture for some reason. But, there is always notion and there is reality. I consider my son and I an “unconventional family” and would like to share how it feels to scribble and sketch outside the “traditional family” and the unique joys of our daily life. With this essay, I want to challenge the outdated stereotype of how a family is supposed to look.
Six years ago, I worked in New York. This is also the place where I met Joel’s father – at this time, a very handsome, sweet, loving man. We fell into deep “like”, then pretty soon love. We had a simple wedding – nothing big is required I believe. We married because we loved each other. That love was what would become Joel. Then, five years later, Joel’s father and I split. Ever since then, it was primarily Joel and I who survived in Canada. Then the divorce was finalized and we moved to Vienna. With zero support from my ex-husband but help from friends and family, life slowly goes on.
“Extreme” long-distance relationship (meaning: over 48 hours travel and several flights to see each other): We never were a traditional family to begin with. My ex-husband left for a job overseas shortly after Joel was born and came home every four/five/six weeks. My son and I lived with my parents for the first 2 1/2 years of his life. There was barely the mom-dad-child-we-are-doing-most-stuff-together kind of feeling. We acted more or less to be a family whenever my ex-husband was at home with us. Even when we moved back to the States and were a “traditional family”, this feeling did not change. My son and I were mostly alone. What I can say, however, is that he grew up in a loving, comfortable surrounding with mostly me, my parents, family, and friends in Germany. I learned that security and a calm routine is what my son needs the most. Long-distance relationships are very challenging indeed.
I come from a traditional family. My mom stayed at home to raise my siblings and I for ten years while my father worked. Regardless, I never saw myself married or being a mom. The thought actually gave me goosebumps. The way some girls dream of their wedding, I would dream about independence, traveling, studying and exploring. When I got pregnant with Joel, I was 32 and have “explored” quite a bit. His dad and I were in a whirlwind romance at the time, and I was like, “Why not?”. It was a planned thing with a mix of love and adventure I guess. That perspective changed after Joel turned three, we moved to Canada, and I started a Master’s program. I really missed the feeling of knowing who I was because I felt like a fish out of water with the stroller stay-at-home mom posse and basically single parenting most of the time. So, I went back to what made me feel electric – writing. There were times when I really missed my ex-husband, felt unfulfilled and lonely many times. But, my son and I managed because everything is possible. I knew then that, although I was not cut out for the stroller- mom- life, this little person had changed me. I knew I would have to figure out my own version of stability. I switched gears and dedicated myself more to writing and reading. This way, I am super fulfilled, and he gets stability and cool-ass books to read.
Single-parenting has raised me. It really tested the stuff I am made of and affirmed my experience in ways I could have never imagined. Every day I am challenged to get up and do things that aren’t self-serving while balancing my own dreams and existence. Sometimes, maintaining this balance has been harder than expected because I also take raising my son seriously. It is not always happy sunshine here either. Single-parenting requires that I am an ocean and not a puddle, so I can facilitate his growth. More often than not, I can feel my depth of understanding and boundaries being tested. It is uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable sometimes, yet rewarding.
Two years ago, my son talked about how he didn’t have a mom and dad who were still together and that it wasn’t normal. We spoke about it (and still do sometimes) because I want him to know that he is complete and whole. I explained to him that our family, though unconventional, is super awesome. That turned into a conversation about happiness and challenging societal norms, which ultimately turned into a conversation about patriarchy and how a family is just as valid with a mom only, a dad only, two moms, two dads, and a mom and a dad and any other variation. What matters most is that whatever the makeup of the family, it is a safe, healthy and supportive place for everyone to live their best lives. And this we do. We have so much fun. I get to teach him so many things I love, too: reading, writing, museums, art and so much more. I feel happy and proud. Proud of myself what I have accomplished in a rather short time for both of us.