Every family is different. Every family is special.
That's something we hear often. Whether it's written in children's books or on TV shows, the message that every family is unique is something that's become ingrained in us.
What makes a family a family, though? For a long time, we were taught that it was just a biological bond — that the people you're born to are the people you belong to for a lifetime.
Of course, now we know that's just one kind of family. It's one small part of a much bigger picture.
Today, more and more people are members of blended families.
According to the US Census Bureau, over 50 percent of families in America consist of people who are re-married or re-coupled. More than 1300 step-families come together every day. Recent statistics also show that more than 135,000 children are adopted every year in America.
These family members may not all share biological bonds, but they share something just as important: love.
While being part of a blended family can be as rewarding as every primetime TV show makes it out to be, it can also be a challenge. But we often don't talk about the realities of what it's like to be a member of such a unit.
That's why Sean Anders, writer and director of the upcoming movie "Instant Family" wanted to make something that was different and real.
Anders and his wife are the parents of three children who they adopted in 2013 who also happen to be the inspiration for Anders' film.
"I wanted to tell a more complete story that doesn't shy away from the tragedy or the trauma, but also really gets into the laughs, and the love, and the joy involved as well," he says of the new film.
"We hit upon the idea of adoption exactly like it happens in the movie. I made that same joke to my wife, that I was feeling like I was gonna be too old of a dad, and she said 'Why don't we just adopt a five year old? It'll be like I got started five years ago.' I was totally kidding. But, she took it seriously enough to get us moving down the road." Anders was on board, but could never have anticipated the challenges, or the rewards for that matter.
"You go through this really awkward time where you have these people in your house who, you're supposed to be their parents, and you don't love them. And they don't love you. You don't even know each other yet. You go through some really difficult transitional times, but you also get this amazing experience of getting to fall in love with your kids."
We wanted to know more about what it's like to come from a blended family. So we asked. Real people answered.
Here are 5 people's true stories of the ups, downs, and life-changing experiences that being part of a blended family brings.
1. Krista Ball was raised by her grandparents, and learned family are the people who accept you for who you are.
"I was adopted as an infant by my maternal grandparents. Children being raised by other family members was fairly common where I grew up (Newfoundland, Canada), so I didn't feel isolated or weird. My teens were tough, though, as I went through a lot of identity issues. I wondered why my biological mother gave me up, but kept her other children.
"As an adult, I absolutely understand those kinds of decisions and I feel no malice or ill-will. It was the best decision for her in that time and place. But I didn't have the tools to understand that at fifteen. I didn't know my biological father's identity until I was in my 30s."
"Family is such a strange thing. I think it's the people who teach you things, who accept you the way you are, and who try to do what's best for you. Mom and Dad (her grandparents) are my family, and I am fiercely protective of them. There is a kind of connection that is beyond simple genetics and shared last names. I was given the best possible life for me. As I get older, I am so grateful for that. Whatever struggles I had as a teenager were worth it, in the long run."
2. Courtney Lipsham is a step-daughter and became a step-mother three years ago at 19-years-old. As such, she thought she knew what to expect. She didn't.
"I come from a blended family and I’ve always had my step-mum around since I was young. I don’t actually remember a time when we weren’t a blended family. When I met my partner I had false hope in the fact that I’d grown up in a blended family fine, so taking on becoming a part of his would be easy, which is quite a misconception I’ve heard among step-parents.
"Between issues with the bio mum, families, living far away from his daughter, and the terrible twos, it’s been challenging to say the least. However, being a part of this family is the most rewarding decision I’ve ever made, especially now his daughter is four and we can go on little adventures together. Seeing her come out of herself with bundles of confidence and watching her grow up is a blessing I never imagined!"
"I’m just so proud of her and so proud of the journey we’ve come on as a family."
3. Louis Swingrover's family is even more unique than most blended families. He can't imagine it being any other way.
Photo of the Swingrover family by Amber Glanville.
"My wife and I have four children-two biological boys, a girl we adopted through the foster care system, and another girl we are currently fostering. It might be the case that blended families in general tend to have some features that are not as common in other kinds of families, but to be honest, I have no idea what those are! I am only aware of what it is like to be a part of my family. It is incredible, innervating, embarrassing, pride-giving, life-giving, depressing and uplifting."
"We have contact with members of our daughter’s family of origin. This means that a distinct kind of extended family is attached to ours, which can be both challenging and rewarding. No other reward in life, however, has the distinct quality that raising an adopted child does. Watching my daughter thrive, and knowing that I played a teeny tiny role of some kind in that is marvelous. But what is more profound to me is the attachment we have formed."
"I will never forget the moment I learned that she would be issued a new birth certificate. It does not list us as the biological parents (our version of the certificate does not include them), it just simply lists as us as her parents, period. From the legal to the relational, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer miracle of her being ours. "
4. Tiffany's new siblings helped heal her relationship with her father.
"My parents went through a nasty divorce when I was nineteen which strained me and my younger sister’s relationship with our father for quite some time. When my father reached out a few years later to let me know that he was expecting a child and marrying a woman I’d never met, I was completely caught off guard."
"This woman was not that much older than me, and I was in the midst of planning my own wedding when I received the news. I remember thinking that I was entirely too old to have an infant sibling."
"Five years (and three new siblings) later, I get to be a big sister to these tiny impressionable little humans and I gained an awesome stepmom in the process. As an added bonus, the births of my new siblings brought my father and I back together and our relationship has never been stronger. Their existence forced my father and me to work through our issues to ensure that they do not grow up witnessing the conflict that infiltrated my childhood home."
"One of the best things about being in a blended family is that I get to feel those warm feelings of nostalgia when I see my dad teaching my younger siblings some of the same fun traditions I got to enjoy as a child."
5. Jill Johnson Young has been widowed twice and has three adopted daughters. Their bonds are too strong to ever be broken.
Linda Johnson-Young and Kerry Johnson-Young, Photo courtesy of Jill Johnson-Young.
"One memory, I will never forget was the first night our oldest child, Kerry, was at home with us for good. We'd been visiting her on day visits for weeks while we waited for her to finish her school year. We brought her home the day school ended. "
"That night we bathed her, helped her dress in her little jammies, and brushed her hair. We read stories, said bedtime prayers, made sure she had enough lights on, and kissed her goodnight."
"30 minutes later she came back out of her room, and looked really scared. She said 'I can't sleep. Can I come spend time with you guys?' We took her into our room, and turned on Ann Murray singing 'Can I Have This Dance?' We picked her up and laid her across our arms, holding her like a hammock laying between us, and slowly danced with her while her eyes started to slowly trust us enough to close."
"It's the moment you know your child has decided she is yours, and that remarkable ability to trust big people again after so much trauma. I keep it close to me."
When she's missing my first wife, her mama, Linda, I tell her the story again. All of us wrapped together. A new family that she knew would be hers — we just needed to find her."