The Family Tree Becomes a Vine

Familial relationships today are complicated and entangled, but also richly rewarding.

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- Posted on Sep 11, 2014

Natalie Gillespie and her family

When I was in third grade, our teacher gave us an assignment to draw our family tree.  It was simple. My crooked construction paper tree branches cradled the names of my two sets of grandparents, my parents, my three siblings and me.

Not so simple for my kids or for most families today. Our family trees have become more like a tangle of family vines with former spouses, stepparents, parents’ (and grown kids’) boyfriends and girlfriends (and their children), half-siblings and stepsiblings, adopted siblings, birth families, foster families and more.

Hardly any families are “nuclear” anymore. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that in the last 50 years, single-parent households increased more than 500%, from 2.2 million in 1960 to 11.2 million in 2011.

Consider this: If you, your parents, your grandparents, or your children divorce, adopt a child, foster a child, or lose a spouse or child, your family tree changes.

If a widowed parent remarries, if divorce occurs but stepchildren stay, or if a former spouse remarries someone with children, your family tree begins to look more and more vine-like.

I never expected to be part of a vine.

I am an unabashed Christian, raised in a devout family; divorce nested nowhere in the branches of our family tree. Then my first marriage fell apart and I remarried several years later, creating a stepfamily that included his three girls, my daughter and son, plus our former spouses, their new spouses and kids, and so on. (Not exactly family, but not exactly not.)

In the first two years of remarriage, my mom and my husband’s mom died, and our dads found new companions. Suddenly, I was a stepmom and a stepdaughter. My husband and I added a biological son to our family, and later we adopted three little girls from China.

Our twins were fostered in China, and we remain in touch with their former foster families. My family vine reaches halfway around the world!

It isn’t simple. It’s a little wild. Sometimes it’s really, really hard. Family vines can be complicated and tangled, growing in directions we didn’t ask for and don’t want to accept.

They can be thick with thorns that pierce our hearts. Yet vines are also tenacious, terribly hard to uproot. They are beautiful, too, lush or flowering, some producing delicious fruit.

Yes, my family tree gave me solid roots. But my family vine has stretched me, fed me and developed a strength in me to withstand all the challenges life throws my way. It has introduced me to people, places and parts of myself that I would never have known.

It has taught me firsthand what grace, mercy and redemption really feel like.

Are you part of a family vine?  If so, what is it teaching you?

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Natalie Gillespie is a mom, stepmom and adoptive mom of nine children who range in age from nine to 31. She writes and speaks nationally on topics that range from stepfamily issues, adoption and homeschooling to managing large families, dealing with troubled teens and extreme couponing. When she is not speaking or chauffeuring children, Natalie can be reached at [email protected].

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