Steps and halves for complicated families

18 Sep
One of my favourite films of the past few years is It’s Complicated. Written by the late genius Nora Ephron, it is the tale of a late-middle-aged couple who had divorced some years before but bond over a trip they have to make for one of their grown-up children. They end up having an affair.
The man (played by a paunchy Alec Baldwin) is sick of his new, much younger wife, whom he fancies, but who makes him go to yoga, do childcare and with whom he has nothing in common. His ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep), by contrast, shares his memories, knows — and cooks him — his favourite foods, is the mother of his three grown-up children and represents all the allure of his old life before he trashed it by running off with wife No 2.
What comes across most strongly from the movie is how the inevitable ghastly bitterness of betrayal in the aftermath of a divorce fades with the passing of time and how remarkably an older love endures.
The film resonates because it is so emotionally true (even if most exes don’t end up sleeping together). Last week, for instance, I went to a funeral where there were so many steps, exes, spurned lovers and tricky combinations at the grave that just explaining how they were all connected would make a great novel. On paper it looked explosive, yet the reality was warm, supportive and immensely loving. In the shock of the sudden death of a much-loved granny, this reconstituted family found strength and comfort in one another, despite the troubled waters that had flowed around many of them for so many years. Perhaps, indeed, the succour was more tender, the empathy more unexpected and treasured, because they came from such unlikely sources.
Such a communal burying of the hatchet is becoming increasingly common. Last week, in the Sunday Times, Gisela Stuart, the MP, wrote movingly about the death of her husband, the economist Derek Scott, and how his ex-wife, the former Channel 4 political editor Elinor Goodman, had joined her at the family home while Scott was dying, to nurse him during his fading weeks. This chimed with me as I’d just seen another friend who had also been tending to her ex-husband during his last few months. She told me how, despite their former fights and feuds — they split up, acrimoniously, more than 20 years ago — they had stayed in touch because of their son. As her ex lay dying, she remembered the vow she had made on their wedding day to look after him and found that what bound them together — their child, so many memories, good times, jokes and friends — far outweighed the pain they had caused each other when they split. In the final reckoning, with death beckoning, love trumped past infidelities and hate,
particularly since she nursed him with her son and grandchildren.
The latest statistics show that in Britain a third of us live in some kind of step- or “blended” family and that these are the
fastest-growing type of family units (in America more people are now part of a stepfamily than a nuclear family). Since the 1970s, when the freeing up of divorce laws produced an epidemic of separations, more and more of us have become part of such a setup. Yet the old myths about the children of divorce being doomed to despair persist, despite evidence suggesting that two-thirds of such children “go on to achieve happiness”. Indeed, experts say that the most negative influences that stepfamilies labour under now are the old myths and stereotypes — wicked stepmother, anyone?
I am not in any way belittling the very real pain involved in divorce and its aftermath, nor how upsetting it can be to be a child shuttled between parents. Yet as the years pass, I realise that complicated childhoods can have unexpected yields. For example, children of divorce learn early that nothing is ever black and white; that the truth lies in infinite shades of grey, according to who is telling it. They are self-reliant and tough — they also work hard to keep their own marriages together. Indeed, as the years slip by, the joy of the blended family often emerges, almost by stealth. It is amazing how, over decades of significant birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings and other events where the divorced couple have to co-parent to some extent civilly, old enmities start to fade. This is hastened, particularly, by the arrival of the next generation.
As the divorce-tastic baby boomers age, increasing numbers of blended families are discovering that, with time, those ragged bonds have somehow knitted themselves into strong and loving webs of support. Increasingly, I hear friends talk about how, say, a stepmother and a mother, who were once at loggerheads, have bonded over beloved grandchildren. As that generation ages, current and past wives find themselves supporting each other as the man they have both loved dies.
It is not just women, either. One friend told me how her father and her mum’s new boyfriend (not historically the best of pals), got on famously at a family funeral, cracked jokes, chatted away and ended up sharing a car home. Another described how her parents, who had been divorced for 35 years, united at a lunch for a grandchild’s birthday, bantered and flirted like the young lovers they had once been. Their grown-up children watched agog: the two had divorced when the kids were so young that they had no memories of how their parents had been when they were together. We hear a lot about family breakdown, but not nearly so much about how the huge extended network that a reconstituted family provides can be a blessing in hard times. I am one of 10 children — some of my siblings are full, some step, others half — but when things are bad, we rally round and support each other; the family telegraph transmits at speed who is fragile and who needs help. At the funeral I
went to last week the other guests kept saying: “How many of you are there? I’ve never met so many siblings at one wake.” That level of loving support is invaluable. The usual narrative around “broken families” is that they are exactly that. But what so many of us are finding is that while such ties may be more complex, and initially painful, when tested in the long term they can be far more resilient and supportive than we expect.
Blended families can be complicated, certainly — but that does not mean there is any less love. It is time to change the script and put on the record some of the positives about the families of which so many of us are a part. Complicated can be good.
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One Response to “Steps and halves for complicated families”

  1. Fiona Bennett September 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    If only my ex could accept my fella, it’s been 8 years and counting. The way I see it, it’s extra people to love and care for my two sons. Complicate can indeed, be wonderful!

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