By Renee Wilson
My sister and I sat at the kitchen table in the small country home that no longer felt comfortable and familiar to us. We were just kids, feet not touching the floor from our perch on the wooden dining chairs. As kids do, we felt the emotional undercurrents in that room. Why won’t she make eye contact with us, we wondered. Why was he using that fake tone to sell us on this? We were little and still trying to navigate the confusion of the recent divorce of our mom and dad. But we had the clarity to know that it was wrong to find out like this that not only was Dad remarrying this woman we had met just once before, but that they didn’t want us at the wedding.
That un-invite changed the course of the relationship between my father and us. For so many families, that was divorce-with-kids in the 1970s. In our case, Dad kept the house, Mom took the money and full custody and we, the kids, took the brunt.
Now meet Sue and Joe Dunham. Both were divorced single parents with three kids each when they met in the ’90s on the soccer field sidelines. Their preteen kids were on the same team. When their relationship eventually blossomed into marriage, and they were bracing to blend their families Brady Bunch-style, they knew it could get complicated.
We meet on a quiet Sunday morning in an artsy coffee shop just north of Toronto. We take a spot beside a small fake fireplace, $15 poorer with three mugs of glorified coffee. Like a confessional from an episode of Modern Family, Joe lets Sue rattle off the family roster in order of how old they are today. There’s Gary, 23, Tim, 22, Nessa, 22, Rebecca, 21, Natalie, 20, and Caleb, 17. Gary, Nessa and Natalie are Sue’s biological children. Tim, Rebecca and Caleb are Joe’s. Sue had been divorced for almost nine years and Joe for nearly three before the families merged in November 1999.
“We were like the Brady Bunch, without our Alice. Boy, we really could’ve used an Alice in the house,” Sue declares.
So, sans Alice, the couple decided to let the kids plan the wedding. In authentic tween-style, “we all wore jeans, went out for Italian buffet afterwards and then to a James Bond movie. That night all of us slept together, sideways, in our king-sized bed. It was a very emotional day for the kids,” says Joe.
This union was more than just the marriage of Sue and Joe. From the start, the couple acknowledged that the children were a vital part of the equation. Letting them plan the wedding was just one way to make good on that promise. (As the couple reminisce about that wedding, I can’t help but compare how selfishly my father and his wife handled my sister and me during the course of their wedding.)
In order for the Dunham family to function, a plan was established, rules were created and it was up to each family member to do his or her part to make the machine hum. “We always told the kids that their convenience would not become our inconvenience,” says Sue. Sunday, for example, was family day. No matter what, that day was reserved for spending time together as a unit. And although it was “hell a lot of the time,” they stuck to that routine. When issues came up, they were dealt with collectively in family meetings. “We always told the kids that we were a community, not an island,” says Joe. And then there’s the 24-hour rule, which applied to Sue and Joe.
“When something really pissed us off, we had to promise to wait 24 hours before bringing it to the other person. It was so important for us to stay on the same team and this was just one way of keeping it together,” says Sue.
The early days with a full brood were rough at times. The family went to counselling as a group. Plus, Sue and Joe went for couple’s counselling, often choosing to drive in separate cars because they’d end up leaving so angry from certain sessions. They laugh about it now, but at the time it was hard. Even when there wasn’t any particular family conflict, just the chaos of having that many kids so close in age under one roof meant always having to keep the parenting game face on.
“On many occasions, I remember coming home from work and driving around the block over and over again until I’d see Joe’s car in the driveway. There was something so crazy about being the first parent in the door after work, when all the kids were home from school, that I often let him take the brunt of the chaos,” Sue confesses, with a grin.
Today, there’s only one child left in the Dunham nest. The rest are either travelling or off at university. Gone are the days of the $400 weekly grocery bills. Raising that many kids doesn’t come without major expense. Three dishwashers, three washing machines and two dryers later, Sue and Joe were able to take their first-ever vacation alone just this year.
Chris Pratt and Gina Roberts have more time alone — 26 weeks per year, give or take a few days — but just as much navigating to do in their relationship. Pratt has been divorced for four years from a nine-year marriage. He shares joint custody of his daughter, 13, and son, 11, with his ex-wife. The children spend one week with Pratt, one week with his ex, on a Friday-to-Friday rotation. They live close enough in proximity that the kids can go to the same school, attend the same extra curricula and hang around with the same neighbourhood friends no matter which house they’re living in on any given week. Pratt is usually the one who takes the kids to their lessons and attends the parent-teacher interviews. “I do all of that stuff,” he says.
Roberts has been divorced for 12 years from a five-year childless marriage. She met Pratt through mutual friends and they have been living common law since 2005. They deliberately didn’t jump into anything too quickly. Pratt says it took him about a year after the divorce to start seriously dating again. “I thought I’d always be a single dad,” he admits, as the three of us get comfortable in the couple’s spotless, newly renovated living room. Soft music fills the room as pleasant incense burns gently from a side table. It’s serene here, and aside from the family photos in the front foyer, I wouldn’t know that children even live in this house. I imagine that’s because they are with their mother this week. Both households are fully stocked — clothes, toothbrushes, PJs — so the kids aren’t living out of suitcases. On transition days, they need nothing more than their school bags. It’s remarkable that the system runs as seamlessly as it does, considering the strained communication between Pratt and his ex.
“We met when we were young and into the party scene. But then the kids came along and the partying continued in her world. Eventually, we just grew further and further apart until the marriage dissolved completely. She’s still very much in that old lifestyle. We rarely talk. She is a major source of frustration and disappointment,” says Pratt.
According to Pratt and Roberts, the kids experience two very different realities depending on which house they’re living in that week. While this couple is big on family routines, consistency and consequences, they agree that it is a polar opposite in the other household. “It would be ideal if the kids could live in two functional households; unfortunately, right now that is not the case,” says Pratt.
Both kids are thriving and incredibly resilient, but I wonder if Fridays will always come with a twinge of melancholy for them the way Sundays still do for my sister and me. In our childhood, Sunday was the day of good-byes. It was the day the random weekend visits with my dad came to an end, punctuated with quick kisses goodbye from his idling truck in the driveway before we let ourselves out and schlepped our suitcase back to Mom. Those visits consisted of foreign rules and arms-length bonding at best. At worst, we were prodded by my dad and his wife to divulge the wrongdoings of our mother, feeling sick and tormented as our stepmother declared, “your mother is a bitch.” I remember the sheer torture of that visit, bolting to the bathroom in a puddle of tears and shame. I was in Grade 4, I think. Old enough to know we shouldn’t be standing trial for our mother’s weaknesses, but still young enough to shoulder the burden of defending her. To this day, when my sister and I get an unsettled, foreboding sense, we just call it the “Sunday feeling” and it’s enough said.
The big difference between Pratt’s kids and us is that, for the most part, there is no bad-mouthing of his ex in front of them. And when love walked in, Pratt says that his kids had to be on-board too. He quietly observed how naturally the children and Roberts got along, and both adults mark it as a pivotal moment when they held hands for the first time in front of the kids at the zoo and were met by wide, joyful smiles. It was his son and daughter’s stamp of approval. But the true clincher was the day Pratt’s daughter, who was eight years old at the time, “told me that she was glad I was here because Daddy’s happy now,” recalls Roberts, as her eyes well up with tears. “Chris has phenomenal kids. I love them both very much.”
I can’t imagine my dad’s wife feeling the same way about us. When I was around 10 years old, she made a point of telling my sister and me that my dad didn’t want any more children (thanks to us, was the insinuation) and that she had a full hysterectomy as a result. I didn’t even know what a hysterectomy was until Grade 9. Would a doctor perform a full hysterectomy as a birth control measure? Regardless, the message was loud and clear. She probably gave us the finger from the living room window as my dad was driving us home from a visit.
Pratt and Roberts have decided not to have any children together, but it wasn’t Roberts’ first choice. She’d love to have Pratt’s baby. “Things are so good right now. I’m afraid that having kids together would break us up. I already worry enough about the kids I do have,” says Pratt, as
he gently rubs Roberts’ knee before passing her a tissue. “As for marriage, it’s something I have to consider. I guess I’m just afraid to change anything. Things are pretty close to perfect right now. I am very content.”
I haven’t seen or spoken to Dad since my wedding day, 15 years ago. I tried for many years to spark a connection between us. I even asked him to give me away at my wedding, which is ironic considering he uninvited me from his. I hadn’t seen him in probably 10 years before that ceremony, but he showed up and played the part. We looked the way fathers and daughters are supposed to look. Afterwards, I sent him several postcards from our honeymoon, and I phoned him a few times when we got home. But then nothing. Eight years ago, my sister had a run-in with his wife on the phone, and she suggested that I only asked my father to be part of my wedding because I wanted cash.
The kind of peace and contentment that Pratt, Roberts and the Dunhams speak of in their relationships is directly connected to the well-being of their biological and step children. Both sets of parents assure me that things are far from perfect. From where I’m standing, the perfection is in the gracious intent to protect and honour the children through the biggest transition in their lives. That’s what matters.
It’s a shame that my father and his wife didn’t follow suit. CF
Renée Wilson is a Stouffville, Ont.-based writer and mother of two who has been
married for nearly 16 years. She thinks about her father every day.
Of parents who separated between 1994 and 1995 the following percentage were either remarried or living in common law with a new partner:
Within 2″“3 years: 44%
Within 6″“7 years: 65.4%
Within 10″“13 years: 85.3%
Source: The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth
“My husband and I made a conscious effort to be respectful of each other’s parenting styles. When our four girls were teenagers, it was a very emotional time and we both let each other handle our own children, holding our opinions to ourselves until we were alone. It causes more stress and heightens the emotion when the step-parent interferes. I would have to say the only time my husband and I ever had disagreements was about the children. We don’t all parent the same way.” -Heather Jackson, mom of Sarah, 25, Rachel, 23, and step-mom of Karen, 23, and Andrea, 17, Caledon, Ont.
“For me, the hardest thing about being a stepmother can be summed up by Mother’s Day last year. My stepson (then 11) was on his way out the door and my husband said, “Don’t you want to say Happy Mother’s Day to Karen before you go?’ And my stepson — who lives with us alternate weeks and has done so for seven years — paused, looked at me with an expression of genuine bewilderment, and
then said, “Why?” -Karen Rivers, step-mom of Jake, 12*, Victoria
*Name has been changed