As a former parenting magazine editor, Brandie Weikle is acutely aware of what society holds up as the picture-perfect family: a mom and a dad, two kids and maybe a dog. So when she and her husband split several years ago, she was also painfully aware that she no longer met people’s definition of family success. “Society still very much reveres marriage or long-term co-habiting,” she says. “We associate that with having things together.”
She and her ex-husband, who have two kids together, were determined not to fall into the trap of a battle-infused separation. For a year, he lived in the basement apartment of their Toronto home. When the house next door happened to come up for rent, he moved in there. He and his new wife now live next door, and their kids have the benefit of easily moving between both houses. Weikle and her ex are both a part of major events like birthdays and holidays. Even day-to-day happenings, like breakfast, often include Mom and Dad.
While Weikle was sorting out her personal life, she met many others who didn’t meet the traditional definition of family. She wanted to help them figure out how to make their new lives work, too. In 2014, she launched the New Family, a website with articles, podcasts and an ambitious undertaking called the 1,000 Families Project, where she aims to showcase a thousand ways to be a family.
The response to her site, and especially her 1,000 Families Project, has been overwhelmingly positive. “People have found it validating,” says Weikle. “They say, ‘This family you featured this week looks a bit like mine, and I’ve always felt I had to apologize that my ex-husband and I aren’t really divorced, but I’m okay with that and with his girlfriend being part of our extended family.”
“We all want to have a family that’s true to themselves. No matter what your family looks like, you’re probably striving to create a good environment for your children to grow up in.”
So far, she’s published stories on 206 families – they write and submit the stories themselves – and through this process, and her own journey, she’s learned a lot about what family means in today’s world. “We all want to have a family that’s true to themselves,” she says. “No matter what your family looks like, you’re probably striving to create a good environment for your children to grow up in. We advocate in the school system to make sure our kids are well-adjusted, and we make decisions to help put them on the right path in life.”
Of course, that’s a challenge for any kind of family, but it can be harder when parents get divorced. There are two key pieces to making this kind of relationship work: First, separate out your hurt and anger from what’s best for your kids. “If you’re still hurting and you find it difficult to be around your former spouse, but it’s the kid’s birthday party, you really need to get it together to collaborate on that party,” she says. And second: Don’t badmouth the other parent in front of the kids.
Perhaps the most important lesson Weikle has learned from working with families is that you can’t let others define your happiness. Whether it’s an aunt who doesn’t understand why your ex-husband is still coming to holiday dinners or a grandma bristling at the idea of two dads adopting a child, just let them get over it, she says.
“Our culture is making great leaps forward. We’ve had same-sex marriage for a while, but we may just be waking up to transgendered families, for instance,” she says. “But if we keep sharing what our lives are like, then people will just start to accept it.”