Joined at the Heart – Family Redefined

Book Excerpt: Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family by Al and Tipper Gore.

Chapter 1 : Family Redefined

Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.
–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The Fadley Family

As Susan Fadley was walking down the aisle to say “I do,” she knew she was making a big mistake. Her brother, who was giving her away because their father had died when they were young, also knew the marriage was a mistake. When the music signaled the entrance of the bride, the three hundred wedding guests who filled the church stood up and turned around to get a good view — but of course they couldn’t hear what Susan and her brother were saying to each other as they started walking slowly from the back of the church toward the preacher and the groom.

“He looked at me right when the church doors opened to walk down the aisle,” she recalled. “And he goes, ‘Susan, it’s not too late.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ And he goes, ‘No, it isn’t. It is not too late.’ ”

Now, eleven years later, Susan says she went through with the wedding because “I couldn’t see what should have done. If I was the age I am now I wouldn’t have done it. I was young — well, I wasn’t that young. Shoot, I was twenty-nine years old! But I wanted to have kids. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to be a family.”

The one benefit that came from knowing that she’d made a mistake was that she reconsidered her intention to have kids right away. Susan’s new husband agreed that they weren’t ready for children, so they decided that even though they were legally joined in matrimony, they didn’t want to start their own family until they felt a stronger emotional connection. Shortly after the wedding, Susan came to a sad conclusion: she liked her husband, but she really didn’t love him. And so, predictably — at least these days it’s predictable — two years and three months after getting married, Susan and her husband divorced.

Susan is a resilient and loving woman: she bounced back from her mistake and is now happily remarried, to Dick Fadley. Together, she and Dick have created a beautiful and happy family. They live with their children in a house with a big backyard and a jungle gym for the kids in a middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio, that was a cornfield until just a few years ago. Like most parents today, they both work. He sells flooring for a successful building subcontractor, and she is a kindergarten teacher with expertise in special education. He’s a hockey fan; she likes to read. They love each other and spend most of their free time with the children. They have a friendly dog named Buttons. You could say they’re an O-American family.

End of story? Well, no. Not in today’s world. After all, they are a 2002 model of the American family, not a 1960 model. Dick, too, was married before, and now he and Susan have two children — or four, or five, or six, depending on how you redefine family. Theirs, you see, is a so-called blended family, and they are fully or partly responsible for six children from four different couples.

This is all still something of a surprise to Susan, who told us that when she was growing up, she thought she would someday have her own version of the classic American family. “I guess I figured —  like everyone did at that time in America’s life-that you would grow up, get married, have children, and stay married. That was just the expectation I had — and it didn’t happen. And that’s okay.”

The story of how Dick and Susan’s six children came into their lives says a lot about how different Susan’s reality is from her original expectation. But first a warning: as so often happens with the new and often complicated families that populate our country today, you may need a scorecard to keep all the family members straight.

Although Susan had no children from her first marriage, Dick’s first wife, Dee, had already had a child, Jacob, before she met Dick. After they married, Dick legally adopted Jacob, then three years old, having obtained the written consent of Jacob’s father. Then Dee and Dick had two daughters, Katie and Maggie, who now both live with Dick and Susan. Jacob, now eighteen, lived with his mother and has just enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

After his divorce from Dee, Dick fell in love with another woman, Caitlin. They were together for three years and had a child, Emily, who is now eleven and lives with her mother. Emily is a frequent visitor in the Fadley household, and surprisingly — if there’s anything left that is surprising in the new kinds of families Americans are now creating — Caitlin and Susan are also close. They talk on the phone and visit regularly to coordinate child care and baby-sitting for Emily, as well as for Dick and Susan’s own children — Claire, who is five, and Joseph, who is one and a half. “Caitlin and I have been pretty good about helping each other out when we need it,” Susan told us. “It’s very complicated, and at times it can be crazy trying to figure out schedules and who is coming when and all that, but for the most part it works really well.”

For Susan, one of the hardest challenges in making her new blended family work came four years ago, when she had to figure out how her relationship to Maggie changed when Maggie moved in with them. “I am not her mom. I told her — and we have had many discussions about this — I am her stepmother. And I want to be her friend. Yet I am in charge of this house.” It all runs pretty smoothly now, she said, but at first it was really tough: “We have our moments, but we were having our months before.”

One of the keys to resolving the conflict was to reach beyond the relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter and reexamine the role Dick was playing in the family as father and husband. “He was going through a transition of being a weekend parent to having to be a full-time parent. That was hard for him. He had to step up and be a full-time parent. And he did. And once he stepped in and took the lead — because he had to-everything started falling into place.”

Three years later, when Katie followed her younger sister to join the Fadley household, once again there was another major adjustment to be made. This time, Susan recalled, “It was quite a bit easier. I think a lot of that is age. Also experience, having been through it once already. And also the fact that Katie was a little older when she came, and could understand the family dynamic.” Now everyone “pretty much” gets along, especially Susan and the girls, because, as Susan says, “Through our struggles we just bonded.” What conflict there is now seems to be mostly between the two full sisters, now sixteen and fourteen years old. Maggie acknowledges, “Me and Katie sometimes go at it, but it’s because of our age.”

Looking back, Susan says that her childhood imaginings of the ideal family were based in part on her “biggest family influence,” the marriage modeled for her by her paternal grandparents. “They had the one and only loving married relationship that my siblings and I saw on a consistent basis, and it was an awesome one. You could tell how much they really loved each other. And it was a lot of fun to go there. It was a really safe place to go.”

Susan’s parents divorced, and then, when she was fourteen, her father died in a car accident. For a few years, her grandparents played an even bigger role in providing stability for her and her siblings and giving them an example of how wonderful and warm it felt to live in a happy, fun, and safe household.

By contrast, the relationship between her grandparents on her mother’s side was not the best. Susan told us that her mom “didn’t have any role models for a happy marriage and had some insecurities as a result, but Mom tried her best to make sure we didn’t feel any of that. My mom has been — for me — the most awesome mom in the whole world. I’m sure history has a way of repeating itself in some form, so I’m sure we had some impact from it, but you do the best you can.” Susan added that despite their marital difficulties, her grandparents were very loving to all the grandchildren.

One of Dick and Susan’s biggest challenges in their own marriage stems from not always having enough time and energy left over for each other after working and taking care of the children and managing all of the relationships in their complex family. A lot of the time, Susan says, “We’re doing the parent thing and not the couple thing. I think that neither one of us are very good about planning a time for us to get away together, just us, even if it’s out for dinner. I know that is a part of marriage we have to work on, and we have talked about that.”

The one thing that is absolutely certain about their marriage, they both agree, is that it is going to last. “The two of us have flat out decided that we are sticking it out. We’re both so determined that we’re not giving up because we’ve both been through relationships that haven’t lasted. We are going to stay together and we are going to figure it out. We do have a lot of stresses in our lives. It’s not an easy family relationship we have built here. It’s very, very stressful.”

Finding harmony in a blended family can be — to say the least —  challenging. “This family is definitely a crazy, mixed-up family,” Susan says. “But we’ve figured out a way to make it work. It would have been real nice to have a family with two parents and children from those parents, but life’s choices didn’t have it happen that way, unfortunately — or fortunately, because then we wouldn’t have who we have now.”

Copyright © 2002 Al and Tipper Gore