WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY LOOK LIKE? By Rhia Fry Wilkin Strohm, Final Year M.Div.

There are words that are common among all yet can bring about many different images and definitions.  Words such as “single,” “married,” or “family” are common enough but I am reflecting on how these roles or categories are changing and the inclusiveness of who identifies with them, and the importance of hearing the stories behind them.

I have identified myself with all of these labels:  single, married, family but maybe in different ways than one might expect. Sharing my own story may help others pause and think differently, and possibly celebrate their own identities.

When I began my seminary experience some three and half years ago, I believe I was the only person on campus who was a single parent.  My three children were ages fifteen, twelve, and ten.  We had gone through a painful divorce four years before.  It is a strange, almost in-between identity.  Single but yet divorced. When I would fill out the forms at the doctor, the options were: single, married or divorced.  I would often stop and wonder, “Why the difference?”  I mean if one is single he or she is not married? And if one is married, he or she is not single—so why the option of divorced?  What about widowed?  Why are only some “sub categories” included?  Is this being negative or inclusive?  This place of single, divorced parent—there really wasn’t a place that I felt I fit.  I was invited to attend FWS (Fellowship of Wartburg Spouses) which I did, and I met some lovely people, but I clearly still felt I didn’t fit into the “normal” categories.

I remember a time when my sister who lives in San Diego and her family came to visit us in Colorado for Christmas.  We all piled into the vehicles to go to Christmas Eve service, my three kids and me, my sister, her two boys and her husband and our parents.  After worship, my sister was asked if her children were adopted.  This may seem harmless in itself, but it was painful for my sister.  You see, my sister’s husband is Chinese-American and their two boys are of Eurasian descent.  So many times well intentioned people express themselves in ways that are exclusive, primarily based on cultural stereotypes.  It is painful for the one who is labeled.

I had instances where well-intentioned people would ask about my absent husband.  At the school parent-teacher conferences, teachers politely asked if we should wait a few more minutes for my husband.   I replied politely, “There is no husband.”  Financial aid advisors asked what my husband’s gross income was. Again I would politely say, “There is no husband.”  Sadly enough, there was a time at church when my children were young and quite energetic, when, although no direct words were spoken, looks of frustration and judgment seemed to be saying, “Those kids need a father to keep them in line. . .”  All were very painful times for me, because you see, I worked very hard to raise my family on my own.  I supported “my family” all by myself. There was no help from this mysterious husband and to imply that this single parent could survive only through someone else was painful.  My family looked different, but I would have to think that once one heard our story, we really were not much different from any other family.

Now three and half years later, my family has changed again.  I have been blessed by God to be married again.  Now I have three biological children, two step children and a step grandson.  My children have three sets of grandparents.  My children have different last names than I do.

The most important point I want to convey is how important it is to take the time to listen to the stories of other people.  Situations are not always what they may look like on the outside. I guarantee there is always a story.  Not everyone will fit into the same “normal.” Not everyone fits into the categories that society creates, but it does not make their identity any less.

Single, married and family these days come in all kinds.  As in all relationships, what is important is how we care for one another, how we love each other, who we are because of each other.  I invite and challenge people to open, to broaden formerly stereotypical categories of families and single and married people.  Invite all.  Include all. Welcome all.   Take the time to know the person and hear their story.

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