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A New Paradigm in Family
by Kim Wright • Black Mountain, NC

Have you noticed how families have changed a lot in the past couple of decades? I deal with that everyday in my holistic law practice, where I help people redesign their families to include step-children. I encourage them to drop the term "step" from their vocabularies and to keep relationships with the children of the ex-spouse– those kids who used to be called "former step-children."

Today I am living that new design of family. I am one of those "modern" women who has had several partners in my 46 years. My third husband jokes that you need a 3-D diagram to understand my family relationships. He’s probably right. My family relationships don't fit into the typical family tree. We’re more of a set of interlocking vines.

Recently, events really brought that home for me. In 1983, I married a man with five children…well, three of them were his blood children and two were former step-children he informally adopted. Into the marriage, I brought my firstborn son from my first marriage– so together we had six children. A seventh was born nine months later.

Dagny, my first husband’s oldest birth daughter, was 13 when we married. As soon as I gave birth to her sister (after five brothers,) she and I created a strong bond. That bond was tested over her teen years. When her mother decided to move in with a boyfriend who didn’t want kids, she sent Dagny to live with us. Separated from her friends, Dagny was an unhappy 14 year old. She resolved to make our lives so miserable that we would have to send her back to live with her mother. Dagny's IQ had been tested in the seventh grade and we knew she was a genius. She used all of her faculties to disrupt our household. When we finally declared that we’d had enough, her mother refused to take her back (oops!) and Dagny was sent to live with an aunt and uncle on a military base. Suffice it to say that she preferred living with us to living with them, and wanted to return. Her mother thought the best approach was one of tough love– that Dagny should have to live with the consequences of her choices. Dagny became a chronic runaway. In response, we became chronic custody litigators, trying to regain custody of a child who wouldn’t stay put long enough to get anything resolved.

It was during this time that I began to consider law school. I saw it as a money-saving proposition. If I got a law degree, we wouldn’t have to hire lawyers any more. I also saw the power of the magic words, "I’m a lawyer." Once, when Dagny had been picked up from her wanderings and was in state custody, I spent $800 on long distance calls trying to get information about her. I was unsuccessful. Our lawyer made one phone call and uttered the magic words. Suddenly, everything we wanted to know was told to him. That was when I decided to go to law school.

During Dagny’s adventures, she mostly stayed in touch with me, and we developed an even stronger bond. Often, when I was worrying about her, I would intend that she call– she would almost always do so. When she didn’t, she told me that she’d gotten the message but was rebelling by not calling. We began to joke about our connection. Soon it wasn’t a joke. Each of us still has the power to get the other to call by merely intending it.

Miraculously, after years of running away, hitchhiking across country several times, living in runaway shelters and on the beach, Dagny survived to become an adult. At 18, she married her first husband. I was her matron of honor. Six weeks later, he hit her and she left him. Pregnant, she arrived at my doorstep. I was in law school and in the middle of the divorce from her father. She testified on my behalf at the custody trial and I was awarded custody of her sister. A few months later, thanks to Dagny, at age 36, I became a grandmother. Her son, Ben, was born while I was taking the bar exam.

Later, in another life transition, Dagny and her daughter lived with Andy, my third husband, and me for a year. Three year old Stephi was impossible to resist and Andy fell head over heels in love with her. They were quite a pair. He, being a 6’4" near twin of Hagrid (of Harry Potter fame,) and Stephi being a tiny blonde cherub with Grandpa wrapped around her little finger.

Often I talk to my clients about how I divorced Dagny’s father but I didn’t divorce his children. (His other children have also stayed in my life.) When her mother wanted to reconcile three years ago, she called me for support and they mended their relationship.

It only made sense that when Andy and I divorced after seven years of marriage, he stayed close to Dagny and Stephi. Now, at age 11, Stephi has both Andy and my current partner, Marty, as Grandpas who think the sun rises and sets at her command.

So, today when Dagny called me from Florida to say that her father-in-law had died, it reverberated through several households. Andy called from Oregon to comfort Stephi and assure her that her other grandpa was okay. Dagny told us that she was being strong for Stephi and Kristen, Stephi’s step-sister. I wasn’t surprised when Dagny told me that she was making sure that Jenny, Kristen’s mother, her husband’s ex-wife, was being included in the family events. She felt strongly that Jenny should be included. After all, she was still family even though she and Patrick were divorced.

In the old paradigm of family, Dagny and I aren’t related at all– at most she is my former step-daughter. Andy and Marty are certainly not related to her. Jenny and Dagny are enemies in that old paradigm.

But, I wouldn’t advise telling Stephi that I am not her grandmother or that Andy and Marty are not her grandfathers. You’d be likely to get quite a lecture about the meaning of family.

J. Kim Wright practices holistic law in Asheville, NC and coaches lawyers on bringing holistic principles into their law practices. More information is available at www.jkimwright.com or www.healersofconflicts.com.