Different is the new normal

by Kristin on March 19, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Daveybot

“Normal” is such a complicated word.

We each grow up with our own entrenched ideas of what normal is, which means, of course, there is no such thing. Yet the world loves to pretend like there is—if normal doesn’t exist, exactly, then at least there’s a perceived ideal normalcy that we should all strive for, or even pretend to have grasped.

When I was my daughters’ ages, “normal” was living in a modest ranch house in a small town with two parents who were both teachers and therefore had summers off. Normal was going to lots of symphony concerts and plays, but almost never going out to eat, and certainly never staying in hotels. Normal was spending our summers traveling across the country by car to see the sights, and camping along the way. Normal was being dedicated to both church and the Democratic party.

How would your kids define normal?

For my girls, normal is something different. They have four parents and two houses—and therefore two bedrooms and two sets of toys. They have more people to love, but also more people to miss, because they can’t possibly be with all of us at the same time. When I married Jason, my girls suddenly gained not only a stepfather, but also a stepsister and extra grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

Normal is even less normal—at least by the world’s standards—for my stepdaughter. It first really struck me when I filled out her camp information form one summer. I was listing the emergency contacts—their names and phone numbers and their relationship to H. There was her mom, her dad, her step mom and…her other step mom (H’s mom’s life partner). H has three moms, two step sisters, and a baby brother who is essentially her half brother yet not biologically so.

I often wonder about H’s mature ability to embrace her brand of normal and be such a happy kid. I imagine it helps that all four of her parents are good friends, but that also makes it even less normal. When I met Jason, we were all going to the same church, and all four of us became friends. Jason and I went to his ex-wife’s wedding, and she and her partner came to ours. We celebrated their baby’s first birthday together, and we all went traipsing around to visit schools for H a couple of years ago, introducing ourselves to school principals by saying “We’re all her parents.”

What can we conclude from my story?

From what I can tell, there are really only a couple of ways to look at all of this. One is to say there’s still an ideal, national definition of “normal,” and my little extended family living in our three separate homes is truly messed up.

But then how can you explain how beautifully our “messed up” life has turned out? And how generally happy and well-adjusted our kids are in their “messed up” lives? Sure, they have issues and feel sad about things, but I would venture to claim that each of their teachers would say our three girls are among the most well-adjusted kids in their classes.

The other way of looking at it is this: There is no “normal”—at least not in a societal sense—and we need to stop pretending there is. We need to stop talking about it, observing the world through it, and assuming it as we report on and read the news.

Most of all, we actively need to teach our kids to identify the falacies embedded in “normal,” and see through to the other side. And people like Jason and I and our exes, and all of you out there who live some type of anti-normal life? We need to embrace rather than hide what makes us different. We need to prove to the world that what they see as “messed up” can be a very beautiful thing.

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  • xmartinj

    I guess I’m hoping for a bit of non-normal. I’m hoping for well-adjusted, generously loving kids, who see the best in imperfect people without being overly naive and/or completely lacking in boundaries.

    Grace in hindsight is critical, I just don’t think it’s wise to use it to justify poor choices you’re going to make.

    I think we do that far too often.

    It’s one of those things where life is in tension: We have to believe in grace enough to not beat ourselves up for the past, and yet continue to strive for the best in every day.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I completely agree – there is no “normal” and when we pretend that there is, we’re setting children up for a lot of hurt because most kids just want to fit in and be “normal.”

    The lives your daughters and stepdaughter are living are so similar to mine sometimes. When I was growing up, “normal” was having three parents, extra siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. In fact, because I was so young when my parents split up and therefore I grew up with the two houses, for a very long time, I thought “normal” meant that moms and dads didn’t live in the same house (my version of “playing house” meant that the mommy had her own house and the daddy had his own house next door.)

    Normal is exactly what you make it – it’s whatever works for your family at any given moment. There are so many different kinds of families today that declaring one or two of them “normal” means we’re shutting out so many wonderful possibilities. And we’re implying to our children that there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way, which (of course) sets them up for a lot of confusion and possibly hurt if/when they discover that that they don’t fit into someone else’s idea of “normal.”

    My family has been “messed up” for years and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe I’m better adjusted to it as an adult, but I’m proud to tell people that I have four parents, five siblings and more aunts, uncles and cousins than I can count. It makes me feel lucky to know that I have so many people on my side and that’s normal to me.

    (Incidentally, I wrote about a similar idea on my own blog either this week. I think you wrote about this topic much more eloquently though!)

  • Jeanne

    The only “normal” people…are the ones you don’t know very well.

  • http://heartlandwriting.wordpress.com Leslie

    There definitely is no normal & the longer we carry that illusion with us, the more damage it can do. And, the early we learn to be okay with what IS allows more freedom & possibility & self-acceptance. Sounds like you are doing wonderfully with your just-right-as-it-is family.

    Leslie :)

  • http://www.CreativeGuideToLife.com Susan

    Your last comment on my blog makes so much more sense now! Love reading this. I think about ‘normal’ a lot. And what I thought was normal, then realized what was not, and now living in NYC and thinking about bringing up a family here. It’s really all perception.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    xmartinj, isn’t it pretty sad that well-adjusted, generously-loving kids are “non-normal,” as you put it? I hear you, though. When you mentioned “grace in hindsight” versus using it to “justify poor choices,” are you referring to divorce in particular? I guess I’m not sure what would define a “poor choice.” Sometimes a poor choice can be the marriage in the first place, or any decision to go against what you know you want deep down in your heart simply because it doesn’t seem “normal” or acceptable to your community, family, etc.

    Meredith, I’ve told you this before, but I really love hearing your perspective on growing up as a child of divorced parents. Maybe I love it because you’ve turned out so great, so you’re proof against all those harsh statistics about kids and divorce. :) But when you share bits of your childhood, it also gets me thinking about how our daughters will look back on all of this and process it, once they’re in their 20s. Anyway, thanks. I’ll be heading over to read your post soon!

    Jeanne, very true! Yet another reason to banish this idea of “normal” from our children’s minds—something you have always been a pro at.

    Leslie, thanks for your comment! I’m glad to know that others out there see the damage the idea of normal can do, especially in kids. As I was writing the post, I wondered if some people would think my concern was over the top, or only applied to kids in unusual family situations like mine. But there are so many other examples of how kids understand “normal,” from athletic ability to how early they begin to read to what their parents pack in their lunches. Maybe the best way to say it is that we all need to talk to our kids more about differences, in general.

    Susan, so funny! It *is* a rather complicated story to briefly reference in a blog post comment. Too many names and relationships, and unexpected twists and turns. But what I love about ideas like “normal,” though, is how they draw so many different people in. Mine isn’t really a story about divorce and blended families, it’s a story about trying to work through what normal looks like in your life. As you pointed out, that’s something so many of us can ponder and relate to.

  • http://www.mohrcoaching.com Tara Mohr

    Thanks for this reflection Kristin!

    I often smile about the things people think are “normal” because they grew up with them. For most of his childhood, my husband thought that all moms and dads had the same jobs as each other – because both of his parents were doctors and went to work at the same place everyday. I had a stay at home mom and a go to the office Dad, and it just boggles my mind to imagine growing up with this assumption, as he did.

    One of things that I love about the proliferation of media now possible through the web, cable networks, etc. is that it is giving us so many stories and voices to listen to….when we aren’t all, as a culture, watching the Cleavers on TV, when we aren’t all reading the same magazines etc., I think that sense of “one normal” starts to erode quickly.

    Normal never was….and its an idea that has made so many people feel marginalized or afraid to be who they really are. Let’s let it go!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Tara, the story about your husband’s perception is so funny! It reminds me of my childhood belief that whenever kids didn’t have school, parents didn’t have work, either. Now I know all too well that isn’t the case! You’re absolutely right about media opening up the range of stories and perspectives we’re exposed to. That’s one of my favorite things about Twitter. My kids aren’t as exposed to that whole world, yet, but I am thankful they go to schools and a church with lots of every kind of diversity. I’m sure it helps them feel more comfortable with their own unlikely lives.

  • xmartinj

    “Sometimes a poor choice can be the marriage in the first place”
    100% agreed. I just wonder how frequently people make the bad decision of marriage because of the prevalence of divorce.

    And no, I wasn’t talking just about marriage.

    How many people marry someone while holding the divorce card close… because it’s not a big deal/everyone does it/nobody’s perfect
    How many students cheat a little on their homework…
    How many people cheat a little on their taxes…
    How many people do a little bit of illegal drugs…
    How many CFO’s cheat a little on the balance sheet…

    Paul writes in Galatians that people have misinterpreted the liberty given by grace as a license to be libertine.

    I realize that being “normal” and “under grace” might not be synonymous, but that’s kind of what it feels like when I read your post. What do you think?

  • http://magimomsmomstuff.blogspot.com/ Elizabeth

    Ahhh… Normal – what a term! It should be banned when referring to families and children. There is nothing that makes this clearer to a parent than having a special needs child. Each and every day is a different challenge for them and their parents. As the mom of three wonderfully uniquely challenged children, I applaud your take on normalcy, and agree that the term is hardly anything that should describe the family of today! Thanks for this post!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    xmartinj, I hope I’m not completely misunderstanding you—sorry if I am! But I think God’s grace covers all kinds of beautiful lives that are full of fruit, but might not be seen by many as “normal.” I used the example of my family life to make my point, but I think it’s important to mention all of the other versions of “normal” society buys into. It’s normal for adults to get married. It’s normal for married adults to eventually have children. It’s normal for committed Christians to vote a certain way. It’s normal for people from the south to be like this, and people from New York to be like that…etc. etc. Does that make sense? I don’t see how a person stepping outside of those stereotypes is similar to a person cheating just a bit on a test or their taxes. I guess it all comes down to how we each define “deviance.” Also, regarding what you said about “people mak[ing] the bad decision of marriage because of the prevalence of divorce,” I’m sure that does happen in many cases, but I have to urge you and others to not jump to that conclusion with anyone. My first husband and I were both raised in the church, we both come from families with parents who are still married, and years after our troubles began we still never thought divorce was an option for us. I think *many* people who get divorced go into their marriages completely set on “till death do us part.”

    Elizabeth, I can only imagine how halfway to normal life must feel with a special needs child. Once, at a party, a mom of a special needs child was chatting with me and questioned the name of my blog—just having the word “normal” in the name was like a hundred red flags were thrown. She was very relieved to hear that I was actually countering the idea of normal—saying that the so-called normal life is not necessarily the happy, fulfilling, blessed one. Thanks for stopping by to share your perspective on all of this!

  • http://episcogranny.blogspot.com Laurachris2

    Hi, Kristin, I love your post. Sorry I’ve not been by lately; dropped Twitter and in the meantime I made a cross country move, so I’ve been busy!

    I grew up on government entitlements because my professionally educated father had the temerity to develop a seizure disorder in the days before there was a law against firing those with disabilities and was fired time after time for having seizures while at work. The idea for my parents had been to raise their family in a Cleaver type of life but that became impossible. We wore ragged clothes to school, we lived on the wrong side of the tracks, went through one summer without shoes, etc. People who did not know our background were constantly amazed at how well we did in school, because poor kids like us simply did not. I surprised people by not getting pregnant in high school and by just graduating. My college prep English teacher told me she did not know why she wasted time with me as I certainly would not attend college. After all, my father just laid around the house instead of went to work. She did not know, and she did not care to know our reality, the scene behind the label.

    It would have been “normal”, given our circumstances, for my siblings and me to have drifted into a life of living on the dole–that is what people expected. But we defied tidy labels. We did not fit in with the people amongst whom we lived (“Who do you think you are?”), and we threatened the people we would have lived amongst had my father not become ill, as we represented what can happen that is beyond one’s control. But none of us live on the government dole, we all went to college and have careers. The college thing did take longer, but we did it. We may have been poor, but we had parents who did not allow us to use the lack of cash as an excuse for failure.

    What I’m trying to say, I think, is that “normal” is just a way of labeling. It is a code word for exclusion, for defining who or what is “in”. I’ve spent my life since age 7 outside many people’s definition of normal and dealing with that has made me into the strong person I am today. When things happen, I just work with it and move on. There has been plenty of practice.

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