Ah, family dinners. Such a lovely opportunity to get together and enjoy a meal, touching base with grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins, shooting the shit and catching up on our lives. Good times. Until, that is, someone in the family says something that makes you do a double take.
“It’s just not the same,” Nana says. Those five words will be imprinted in my brain for eternity. The sentence hits me square in the gut. What fresh bullshit is this?
We’re sitting at dinner, talking about all of the amazing grandchildren she has... but. Yes, there’s a “but.”
Rowan, my biological daughter, is with her father and her grandparents tonight. Nana—Boyfriend’s mother—and I are discussing my daughter’s father. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of my ex procreating. Is this something people typically talk about with their mother-in-law from their second marriage? But here we are, two voices among a table filled with Boyfriend’s blood relatives, Nana curious about my ex’s family planning, me wondering why she’s so interested.
“I don’t think Rowan’s dad will have more children,” Nana postulates. “So Rowan will be his parents’ only grandchild. Let her grandparents spoil her rotten!”
I stare blankly at her, not really sure where she is going with this. For whatever reason, I feel the strange need to defend the possibility of my ex growing his family.
“Well, he could meet and marry someone with children, and then Rowan’s grandparents will have more grandchildren in their lives,” I respond, a tad defensively. I mean, that’s what happened to both Boyfriend’s parents and my parents when Boyfriend and I blended families and households. Suddenly my parents had two new children growing up with their granddaughter. And Boyfriend’s parents suddenly had my daughter in their lives, growing up alongside their biological grandchildren. How has this slipped Nana’s mind?
“It’s not the same when they’re not your own,” Nana responds.
I only have a small window of opportunity to respond to her slip or admission, or whatever the fuck it is, that Nana loves her biological grandson not the same as my daughter, who is his sister, for fuck’s sake. I’m in shock, yes. How could I not take this to mean she doesn’t love my daughter as much? That’s what she’s saying, let’s be real. How could she admit this out loud? Why didn’t she think before she spoke? It’s like the first lesson we learn in life, isn’t it?
“So what you’re really saying is that you don’t love Rowan as much as you do Holt,” I say, clearly miffed. Mama Bear has been poked. I suddenly feel far from a doting daughter-in-law. I’m guarded now, ready to battle on behalf of my daughter, who, frankly, I’ve known longer than both Nana and Boyfriend. I think Nana knows that she has fucked up instantly, upon hearing my straight-to-the-point question, or maybe my response sounds like more of an accusation. I know that she has fucked up. She knows that I know that she fucked up. And I knew that she knows that she fucked up. Everything at the moment is really fucked up.
It’s not the same when they’re not your own? It’s not just a slip of the tongue. It’s a colossal slip of the tongue. Nana knows I’m beyond fiercely protective of my daughter and her well-being.
Apparently love in this family is conditional. This is news to me. She may love Rowan, but she loves Holt more because, though they both came from my womb, Holt is her biological grandchild, and that, it seems, makes all the difference. The fact that she’s known my daughter longer than she has known my son doesn’t seem to matter. Apparently, the lack of DNA she doesn’t share with my daughter, but that she does share with my son, tips the scales in her heart.
At our family gatherings, it’s not alcohol that is the truth serum. It’s cake. There is always a fucking cake. I wonder if Nana, sweet Nana, has had too much cake this evening and, like a child, has spit out this admission due to an uncontrollable sugar high. How could she admit such a thing, especially to me, the mother of both these children? I’d always—stupidly, I guess—operated under the assumption that she now considered Rowan one of her own. Maybe that was foolish. Maybe I should have known. But I didn’t. My heart hurts.
Thankfully, everyone else at the table is immersed in their own conversations, or this could have potentially deteriorated into a bitter family feud. I feel a knee-jerk reaction to stand up and lose my ever-loving mind on Nana, defending my daughter’s right to equal love. My brain is reeling. I can’t let this go. I need to say something without being overly snide, since, honestly, Nana has a kind heart and would do anything for her loved ones, who I thought included my daughter. Had I been fooled all these years?
Maybe I shouldn’t question her. Maybe I should let this go. Maybe, like normal, nuclear families, I should pretend she hasn’t said anything and shove some cake in my mouth.
It is painful to see Nana trying to stutter her way out of...what? Her truth?
“Well, it’s different. I mean, I mean, I’ve known Rowan for years,” she says, her face now a blotchy red, and this time it isn’t the result of a menopausal hot flash. She’s clearly embarrassed. As I think she should be.
Yes, she’s known my daughter for two years longer than Holt, in fact. But who’s counting. Oh, right. I am.
Will I ever look at Nana the same, knowing she doesn’t have the same sort of love for both my children? It may have been a slip of the tongue, but her words aren’t just out there in the dining room. They are out there in the universe. Worse, they are stuck in my brain. Contrary to what I thought, family isn’t family, exclusive of when you come into each other’s lives. At the very least, love isn’t equal when it comes to the family you gain along the way while blending.
Maybe deep down a part of me always has wondered about this. Maybe there has always been a part of me that didn’t want to acknowledge that this amazing, wonderful woman didn’t consider herself to have the same role in Rowan’s life that I thought she did. Maybe it’s always been an unconscious fear that the lines between biological and non-biological weren’t as blurred as I hoped and prayed they should be or actually are. Those words, “It’s just not the same,”expose Nana’s bias. They also expose a wound that maybe I haven’t done a good enough job protecting. Her admission forces me to think, and question, what love really means in a blended family. Do I love Boyfriend’s children as much as the two who came out of me? Do I love my biological daughter differently than I love Boyfriend? Love is confusing at best in blended families. Love isn’t equal.
So maybe love isn’t the same. Even if Boyfriend and I make it to our tenth anniversary, it won’t be before I celebrate my daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Unlike traditional families—first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby carriage—when you’re in a blended family and there are children involved, you’ll always have known your biological children longer than you’ve known your partner. In a blended family, you’ve met your children first. You have loved your children first. You have raised them, your way, first. You have bonded with your children first.
Nana was just the first to come out and say it out loud.
Excerpted from "Blissfully Blended Bullshit: The Uncomfortable Truth of Blending Families"© 2019, Rebecca Eckler. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press.
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