Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. - And Then We Were Poly Jenny Block
Chapter 2. - Woman Up asha bandele
Chapter 3. - The Enemy Within Dan Savage
Chapter 4. - Foreign Relations Suzanne Kamata
Chapter 5. - Counting on Cousins Amy Anderson
Chapter 6. - The Look ZZ Packer
Chapter 7. - Like Family Min Jin Lee
Chapter 8. - Daddy Donoring Antonio Caya
Chapter 9. - Two Red Lines Susan McKinney de Ortega
Chapter 10. - My First Husband Liza Monroy
Chapter 11. - Home Alone Together Neal Pollack
Chapter 12. - Love, Money, and the Unmarried Couple Judith Levine
Chapter 13. - Unassisted Sasha Hom
Chapter 14. - Sharing Madison Dawn Friedman
Chapter 15. - Half the Work, All the Fun Marc and Amy Vachon
Chapter 16. - How Homeschooling Made Our Family More of What We Wanted It to Be ...
Chapter 17. - Till Life Do Us Part Meredith Maran
Chapter 18. - This Old House Rebecca Barry
About the Contributors
by Rebecca Walker
Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self
Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence
edited by Rebecca Walker
To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism
What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future
Published by the Penguin Group
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
One big happy family : 18 writers talk about polyamory, open adoption, mixed marriage,
househusbandry, single motherhood, and other realities of truly modern love / edited and with an
introduction by Rebecca Walker.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01143-0
1. Family—United States. 2. Social values—United States. I. Walker, Rebecca, date.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by other people’s families. My own family was fragmented and haunted by unfulfilled longings. My parents came from different races. They divorced. They began relationships with others. They had children with others. They lived three thousand miles apart. They had wildly divergent worldviews. They did not communicate often or, from my perspective, well. As I shuttled back and forth across the country to spend time with each parent, navigated the murky waters of a multiracial identity, and struggled to negotiate tricky relationships with my stepmother and half-siblings, I didn’t feel my parents were fully aware of the implications of their decisions. Though they may have tried, they weren’t able to ensure my emotional well-being in the midst of their vicissitudes. My parents loved each other deeply, but they never figured out how to actually be a family.
I can’t say for sure why this was so. My parents both came from less than idyllic families, which may have had something to do with their difficulty charting a steadier course for ours. But my parents were also part of a larger generational movement that rebelled against the traditional nuclear family. When they met in the early 1960s, divorce was stigmatized and not easy to obtain. Interracial marriage was illegal in most states, birth control just barely available, and abortion hidden away in back alleys. Women were just beginning to enter the workforce in large numbers. Homosexuality was classified as deviant, a psychiatric disorder. A family was expected to live in one community, in one house, for decades. Their children attended the local public or parochial school. Emotional subtleties were regarded with suspicion, and circumscribed “family values” went, for the most part, unquestioned.
Though you’d have to ask them for particulars, I think it’s safe to say that my parents identified this paradigm as part of a larger system responsible for the oppression of women and people of color, and the repression of human sexuality and potential overall. Thus armed, they gave themselves permission to smash the paradigm to bits by doing the exact opposite of what was expected, which translated loosely into doing whatever they wanted or, perhaps more accurately, whatever they could piece together. This meant marrying when it was illegal to do so, cultivating both of their careers, and moving from one city to another as opportunities arose. It also meant divorcing without lawyers or acrimony, devising a custody plan that moved me between their houses, three thousand miles and many worlds apart, every two years. It meant not talking to each other for more than ten minutes, up until the day I graduated from high school.
Whether this chain of events transpired by happenstance or design, the result was the same. Plans were made, and then abandoned. Subsequent complications were left largely unresolved. I floundered in the midst of a series of upheavals, watched a popular television show about a white, “blended” family called the Brady Bunch with longing, and was certain that everyone else’s family was more coherent and stable, more “family-like,” than my own. I tested my hypothesis by spending an inordinate amount of time at the homes of my friends, convinced I could find the missing ingredient, the rarefied glue that coalesced seemingly random individuals into indivisible clans.
When I was ten, I stayed nights in a tiny apartment with a friend whose mother slept the entire time I visited—the only hours she didn’t have to work. In seventh grade, I spent weekends with my best friend amidst shaky, broken-down stairs, entire walls of peeling paint, and an angry father who punished his children for the tiniest indiscretion. At thirteen, I was a regular fixture at the house of a friend whose dad smoked what was known in the neighborhood as “the best fucking pot in the state.” We chanted along to “We don’t need no education” in his cave-like study, oblivious to the irony that he was a teacher at the high school his daughter and I would eventually attend.
I also visited families that didn’t skirt the edge of acceptable middle class-dom. I met, for instance, a lovely family on a bus tour of Ireland. Everyone in the family had names starting with the letter S, and they invited me to stay at their midcentury modern house in upstate New York. I found it a little dull, but charming nonetheless. I felt the same way about a nice, middle-class family—the father was a doctor, the mother a schoolteacher—living next door. Their young daughter and I shoveled spoonfuls of coveted (but verboten at my house) Marshmallow Fluff into our mouths, and romped through each floor of her Marimekko’d house with abandon.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had concluded that some families were like mine—they broke the rules and made up new ones as they went along, with hit-or-miss results. And some families were not like mine—they hewed to a more traditional path that appeared more stable, but lacked the frisson of experimentation. The first group explored new territory, but couldn’t determine a workable cartography for the future. The latter followed a decades-old map, dangerously oblivious to tectonic shifts occurring beneath the surface.
By the time I had my son fifteen years later, I had made several attempts to create a family of my own. I winged it, searching for stability but stumbling over patterns of intimacy that seemed built into my DNA. There was a relationship with a sexy musician who may or may not have been on drugs. There was a guy who lived six thousand miles and twenty cultural galaxies away. My high school sweetheart followed me across the country for my first two years of college, but my working night and day on a documentary one hot summer in a borrowed condo on the Upper East Side of Manhattan ripped our relationship to shreds. Then I fell for a guy who was kind of right for me. But he came from an intact family and his parents had pictures of him and his sisters all over the walls of the house they’d lived in for twenty-five years, and every time I slept over (in a separate bedroom, of course), I felt like an insecure freak from a broken home. Which eventually made him crazy and swear, to my face, that he would never again go out with anyone whose parents were divorced.
It was a lot of fun.
So when my son was born and I saw him lying strapped to a board under an oxygen tent, unable to breathe on his own because he’d had a difficult birth with all sorts of complications, I realized I had to get my proverbial stuff together. Decisions had to be made. Promises had to be kept. I couldn’t just shake my head and say I tried my best if he told me one day I had been an awful mother and he wanted—no, needed—to live in the desert in a tent with his pet iguana. I listened to his raspy breathing and let the reality of responsibility wash over me. It was now or never, I thought to myself. Romantic love doth not a family make. Bogus, manufactured ideas of following your bliss can lead you over a cliff without a parachute. Make some sane, considered decisions and live with them for a while. If they don’t work, reevaluate and change the plan. Make sure the boy doesn’t suffer unnecessarily in the process. Take responsibility. Grow up.
Which was also a lot of fun, and, given my track record, as likely as gathering odds and ends from my kitchen, building a rocket ship, and flying to the moon. To my credit, though, by the time I went into labor, I had learned a few things. I knew I wasn’t willing to follow any doctrine, including “attachment parenting,” blindly. I was certain I didn’t want to “just do what felt right in the moment” again, either. I knew I had to create a hybrid modality, a stable but adaptive platform for family life. Like the operating system on my computer, it had to be sophisticated enough to handle several programs at once without crashing, or worse, blowing the motherboard.
I decided to put the family-watching skills I developed as a child to use by editing a collection of essays about contemporary families that balance the traditional and the counter-cultural, the cliché and the experimental. I jumped into the project because I wasn’t alone in my search to be both authentic and sane. My friends and colleagues had also recovered from childhoods full of too much or too little, and were looking to fashion an adulthood out of wisdom gained. Hours and hours of their lives were devoted to researching and integrating elements that could make their crazy, complex twenty-first-century families work. My book would be the ultimate reference book for all of us, I thought, a modern anthology version of Dr. Spock.--This text refers to the Paperback edition.