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There's No Such Thing as a Broken Familia

Some things are better smashed up and reconstituted with new parts: fairy tales, upcycled mosaic art, music videos that make good mashups, DNA strands, and bad marriages, to name a few. Most people feel proud of putting together a great eclectic playlist, breaking an outfit routine, or discovering a ferociously edgy lip and nail combo. Kintsugi (a Japanese pottery technique in which cracks are filled with gold) is trending right now. But there's so much shame attached to "broken" families that are not headed by two married people. Why is that?

Right now in the gloriously Frozen-esque landscape of Michigan, a battle over the "traditional" family is heating up in Detroit. The issues are same-sex marriage and second parent adoption, which indeed have no formal precedent of which I am aware in our culture's old-timey and ancient roots. Yet the idea of "traditional marriage" and an idealized and "traditional family," consisting of one father married to one mother and several of their shared biological children, has never been the norm for humans--and not even for those of us with European ancestry.

Science tells us that this is just fine. Resilience in children has little to do with family structure itself. One mother and one father are neither necessary for a child's well being nor enough for a child's well being. More important is the quality of the child's bonds with her or his caregivers--parents, grandparents, cousins, adoptive parents, older siblings, or whomever--and community bonds with non-relatives such as neighbors, friends, and teachers. Families move, split, embrace new members, and evolve, much of the time for the better. Children of single moms sometimes become the President or one of our favorite celebrities.

There is no ancient Greek or Roman word for a nuclear family; the Latin word familia referred to a household, which in ancient and medieval times included many extended relatives and non-relatives living under a shared roof. It was not fixed or narrowly defined; members could come and go, and the whole party could hop from building to building.

Medieval Europe did not acquire the notion of a nuclear family living privately within a fixed household until around the time of the Renaissance. This made sense considering that two living, married parents were a rare luxury; marriage in medieval Europe only lasted a dozen years or so, because so many people died young of disease, starvation, or injury. If we do the math, that means that the majority of children (the half that survived childhood illnesses) would have been orphaned well before their teens. In a home filled with adult relatives and friends, this unfortunate fact would protect many children from being cast into the streets or overcrowded orphanages.

Quick remarriage after the death of a spouse was common, for practical reasons. While this certainly would have caused tensions and snags just as it does today, the villainy of step-parents (actually, just stepmothers) in German folklore was greatly exaggerated by the Brothers Grimm in the editing of their collection of tales. Many of the old country folktales dealt with incest and child abuse by fathers. Abusive and neglectful mothers also appeared. But abuse by natural parents was too distasteful for the middle class and wealthy men who had book-buying power in 19th century Germany, so many of those bad parents were recast as Evil Stepmothers as a marketing tactic.

Only a few centuries before the Grimms wrote down their tales, privacy in a nuclear family home was not considered desirable, healthy, or normal--if it was even considered at all. Living was much more communal and social than it is today. Children formed bonds with many people of various ages and relations; none of them ever hid behind iPhones or laptop screens for hours on end.

This is not to say that those were "the good old days." If divorce rates have gone up, maybe that's partly because life expectancy and personal expectations have gone up. Even a couple generations ago, marriages lasted about 40 years. Now they can double that figure. On the whole, children--of married, single, straight, or gay parents--are strikingly better off in all kinds of ways than they were in the Dark Ages. There are obvious comforts and benefits of living in a low-chaos, single family, basic nuclear home. But sometimes we forget that there are also benefits to living in multi-generational or multi-family households as well.

Stability matters. Love matters. The basic structure of the family doesn't matter so much. It's silly to stay in an unhealthy marriage "for the sake of the kids." It's ridiculous to pull apart siblings raised together and throw them into foster care upon the death of a parent rather than let them stay together with their legal parent's same-sex partner who has been parenting them all along. Families as we sometimes think of them, with a sperm donor and an egg donor and their offspring, usually don't stick together until the bitter end. They tend to break, one way or another. But sometimes, just sometimes, healthier families can be put together from different parts.

Mixing things up can be great for a lot of things--fusion cooking, fashion, music collaborations, fractured fairy tales, classroom activities, feng shui furniture arrangements... So there's no shame in having a mixed or mosaic-ed family. We all do, really, in some way or another.

So far, my husband and I have a very simple family structure--just him, me, and our bio-offspring, living together in one house. But sometimes we live with other people. Since moving into our home, we've had a total of six roommates, some repeating, and at one time, three simultaneously. Yes, it's been crazy. Yes, we've had disagreements and annoyances. Yes, we've been looked down upon for behaving like impoverished hippies. But all in all, it has been a positive experience. It's kept our lives interesting and rich, saved us from having to sell the furniture or lose the house in tough times, and we'll probably do it again and again.

bonus points if your roommates are migratory and bring imported gifts

Just for fun, here are some fairy tales smashed up with other things for a fresher taste:

At London Fashion Week, AnOther Magazine held a Wonderland themed party (click here for a photo gallery. Alice came from a nuclear family... and did that stop her from tripping down the rabbit hole by age 10? Did it?

Meanwhile, Vivienne Westwood started her fashion show with an interpretive dance version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" (click here for video). The main character of that story suffered a brutal fate--not because she was adopted but because her adoptive mother spoiled her with too much wealth!

Musician and comedian Todrick Hall reinterpreted Belle in Beauty and the Beat. Daughters of single fathers can become princesses, yo. And have good credit too.

My daughter Nux Gallica's favorite movie is The Secret of Kells, a beautiful film combining Irish Christian history with pre-Christian myth and folklore. The star, a boy named Brendan, lives at an abbey under the care of his uncle and other monks. He enlists the help of a fellow orphan to save the day. An orphan who commands the wolves of the forest.

There are many kinds of good families, and diversity makes for new ideas and possibilities.

Come and visit the first Friday Monday of each month for more Middle Path Mother at the Magic Nutshell.


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