Giselle Minoli’s latest column on Para-kin discusses the mission of the group. What does the future hold? Read her article now by clicking here or see excerpt below:
In my [Giselle Minoli] January 3rd article, “A New Year’s tribute to all of our biological mothers who are also stepmothers,” I wrote that I‘ve been a member of a stepfamily – or half-family, if you will – since I was born. My mother was stepmother to my father’s daughter by his first marriage; she was my half-sister.
I also wrote that my father died when I was five, which led me to begin collecting, when I was a teenager, substitute father figures to replace the one I had lost. Some of them were family friends of my mother’s, some were teachers, and still others were mentors I would later meet in my professional life. In fact, I collected both father and mother figures, curating a whole new family of people I admired and who inspired me.
While I wouldn’t wish losing a parent on anyone at such a young age, I couldn’t have imagined that there might be a silver lining to such a sorrow – that of learning to develop important relationships outside of one’s family, in whom to trust, from whom to learn, and with whose guidance to grow. Ours was an unusually small family. Both sets of my grandparents had died before I was born, and great geographical distances prevented close relationships with the precious few aunts and uncles I had. So while none of my substitute fathers and mothers were biologically related to me, they were all indisputably members of my own personal “family,” and their influence on me is palpable to this day.
Nor could I have imagined that one day in the distant future Debra Chernick, a divorced mother of two who practices family law in Rhode Island, would create the phrase “Para-kin” to describe members of families bound to one another not by the legalities of marriage and biological relationships per se, but more by love, commitment and mutual and communal nurturance, whether they share the same living quarters or not.
Serendipity determined how I came to interview Chernick. On September 9, 2010 I’d finished a series of interviews with Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., the author of Stepmonster, with whom I discussed the numerous challenges stepmothers face when interacting with stepchildren who already have a biological mother, and therefore might not necessarily have room in their hearts for another “mother” figure in the form of their Dad’s present wife. I’d been frustrated at having to constantly distinguish between biological mother and stepmother, biological daughter and stepdaughter, nuclear family and stepfamily, and to make sense of the dreaded “blended” family, which, seemingly, every family therapist and blended family wishes they could strike from the lexicon altogether. As for me, I confess it’s impossible to divorce the word “blended” from whatever connotations it has relevant to the art of cooking, or putting on face make-up.
On April 28, 2010 Martin had written an article for Psychology Today entitled, What the Sandra Bullock saga can teach us about step/motherhood, in which she laid bare the reality that although Bullock had essentially helped raise Jesse James’s small children from two prior marriages, she would not have any right to maintain relationships with them after the divorce because she wasn’t their biological mother. All of this made me think that having a biological family torn asunder by divorce and remarriage can become a millstone around the necks of its members, who must spend the rest of their lives making the same kinds of relationship distinctions I’d been forced to make should either parent (or both) get remarried to someone with children, or, further, get divorced again, creating the ever flavorful “ex-stepmother” or “ex-ex-stepsister.” Not to mention the pain a stepmother like Bullock might feel at not being able to continue a relationship with a child they genuinely continue to love and care about.
I mentioned to my husband that I wanted to get a family law attorney’s take on the legal issues, and to sort out what exactly happens to a loving relationship between stepparent and stepchild when that marriage comes to an end. The very next morning I woke up to an email from Chernick, who had been reading my articles, and wanted to tell me about the word Para-kin, which was intended to embrace all of the complex relationships resulting from divorces, step relationships and blended families, as well as unions between people who are not married, choose to remain unmarried, or for various reasons cannot be married.
The result was a five-part interview, the first segment of which I published on September 23, 2010. Subsequently, the Rhode Island Bar Association Journal wrote an article in their January/February 2011 issue entitled, “Para-kin: Defining our Relationships,” which compelled me to follow-up with Chernick about her mission to introduce the phrase Para-kin into the American lexicon of words that define family relationships. This is part one of our two-part discussion.
The Rhode Island Bar Association Journal’s article “Para-kin: Defining Our Relationships,” seems to use the word “relationships” in a very broad sense. Could it encompass those people we bring into our lives by choice, who may not be blood-related or bound to us in any traditional way, but whom we perceive to compose our personal families?
Absolutely. The phrase Para-kin identifies the people one chooses to encompass within the definition of their family. My daughter Alizah put it this way when I created the website. She said, “Mom, I don’t mean any disrespect to your brother and sister, who are my biological family, but your friends Mary, Susie and Jorene have helped to raise me and I think of them as my real aunts. They are my Para-aunts. I love them, and I know they would watch over me as their child if anything happened to you.”
In fact, Alizah recently confessed that she posted an anonymous comment about Para-sisters and Para-aunts to the first interview you did with me. I’m sure that many people have embraced “sisters, aunts and moms and dads,” who are not blood-related, but are nevertheless “family.” I know that on the website we have received numerous comments from people who finally can refer to that special man or woman in their life as their Para-mom or Para-dad. It’s a word of identity that has been missing.
Given the positive response to your website and the Rhode Island Bar Association Journal article, has the Mission of Para-kin changed in any way? What are your hopes, dreams and goals for the Para-kin movement for 2011?
I’m very pleased that the Rhode Island Bar Association has opened up the dialogue regarding the use of Para-kin terms. It’s a question of credibility, a question of whether this movement can take hold. Having an esteemed body such as the Bar Association acknowledge Para-kin will certainly add to its ability to survive and perhaps take root culturally. I envision other bar associations, and perhaps the American Bar Association itself, exploring the use of these terms and the effect they might have on legal standing. Ultimately, I would like to see the enactment of legislation allowing a classification known as a “Para-spouse,” which would provide certain rights by definition, particularly in areas such as health care, medical directives, end-of-life decisions, retirement benefits, and certain family court visitation rights, providing they are in the best interest of the children.
All of the current terms we use to define our partners, be they domestic partners, significant others, life partners, spousal equivalents, our better halves, all of these words…all of them…lead to only one status. We are all “spouses” who have not walked down the aisle for one reason or the other. The classification as Para-spouse (P-spouse) provides one universal identity for heterosexual couples and for same-sex couples in loving, committed relationships.
Moreover, Para-kin creates and gives the greatest gift to many of us with children, and that is the gift of identity. What do I mean by that? In many situations a committed couple may be raising children from prior relationships. Both the biological parent and his or her partner love those youngsters, and yet the English language doesn’t have words to describe this relationship…between that partner, i.e., the Para-spouse and those biological children. Since the relationship of stepparent to stepchild only rises upon a marriage, what does that P-spouse call the children? The answer is really quite simple and loving: Para-son or Para-daughter. Just imagine, for a moment, walking down the street with your partner’s child. There is only one way to introduce that child…”this is so and so’s son.” But with the help of Para-kin terms, you could say instead, “let me introduce you to my “P-son.”
This is identity. This is powerful. This is love.
Stay tuned for the second part of my follow-up conversation with Debra Chernick, in which she talks about the difference in meaning between the words stepmom and Para-mom and how those two words affect the relationship between stepparent and stepchild.