3 Nontraditional Families on How It Feels to Be “Different”

Whether you cherish your family or merely put up with them, you’ll find something to relate to in the below story. Originally published in November 2017 and featuring three nontraditional families, it’s a good reminder that family is what you make it (even if that means making your own). 

When you hear “traditional family,” what comes to mind? A doting mother and father, 2.5 kids and a Golden Retriever? Maybe a white-picket fence and a color-coordinated holiday photo? As prosaic and vanilla as that may sound, the old school notion of what constitutes a family is one that still pervades American culture.

But there’s “notion,” and there’s reality. I asked three “unconventional” families how it feels to scribble and sketch outside antiquated familial lines, and each described the unique joys of their different, respective households. Today, it may seem more common to be uncommon, but their stories prove that representation still has a long way to go. Read on to meet three American families who challenge the outdated stereotype that demands they look a certain way, and who have had a lot of fun in the process.

Malene and Dasez

Malene Younglao, 40, is a chef and urban farmer. She lives with her son Dasez, 10, in New York City.

How’d your family come together?

Eleven years ago, I was a front woman of a touring indie punk band. I had just come back from my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, when I ran into Ade’s father–a very cool, extremely talented and well-respected artist. We fell into deep like, then eventually love. That love was what would become Ade. One kid, a very storybook destination wedding in Tobago, and three years later, he and I split. Ade’s dad then moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh to plant new roots, while Ade and I stayed in New York City where he was born and I was raised. Ever since then, it’s been primarily him and me, Ade and Mama causing a fuss in these New Yawk skreets

What does “traditional family” mean to you? 

Dasez and Malene

When I hear “traditional family,” I think mom, dad, two kids, a dog and a condo in Park Slope, Brooklyn. You know–stroller moms in Prospect Park and vacations in Martha’s Vineyard. I️ actually had that for two years after he was born, but that just wasn’t me–or his dad. In fact, I think I believed that once you have kids, that’s what you should be, and comparing who we were to that standard hurt our relationship.

I don’t come from a traditional family. We are very blended. I have four parents, nine siblings and grew up between two biological parents who, during my childhood, lived in separate countries. I never saw myself married or being a mom. The way some girls would dream of their weddings, I would dream about independence and a very Cher-after-Sonny existence. When I got pregnant with Ade, I was 29 and still performing. His dad and I were in a whirlwind romance at the time, and I was like, “Why not?” It wasn’t a planned thing, just a byproduct of love and adventure I guess. Two artists in love.

That perspective changed when Ade turned two and I went back on the road. I really missed the feeling of knowing who I was because I felt like a fish out of water with the stroller stay-at-home mom posse. So I went back to what made me feel electric. But while gone for that year, I really missed Ade and was really unfulfilled and lonely when I️ got off the stage. I knew then that, although I wasn’t cut out for the stroller mom life, this little person had changed me. I️ knew I would have to figure out my own version of the stability. So I switched gears and dedicated myself to becoming a horticulturist. As an urban farmer and chef, I bring the same rock star passion and creativity to my work. This way, I️’m super fulfilled, and he gets stability and cool-ass experiences.

What’s surprised you in a good way about carving your own path?

Being his mom has raised me. It’s like this whole experience became my parent. It’s really tested the stuff I️’m made of and affirmed my experience in ways I could have never imagined. Every day I️’m challenged to get up and do things that aren’t self-serving while balancing my own dreams and existence.

What’s been harder than expected?

Maintaining the balance. I take our Jedi/Padawan thing very seriously, but it requires that I be an ocean and not a puddle, so I can facilitate his growth. More often than not, I can feel my depth of understanding and boundaries being tested. It’s uncomfortable. But growth is uncomfortable and rewarding.

Do you have any memorable anecdotes around the fact that your family is “untraditional”?

Ade’s father lives in Pittsburg. They have a close relationship, but don’t see each other as often as they would both like. One day, Ade came home from school talking about how he didn’t have a mom and dad who were still together and it wasn’t normal. That troubled me, because above all I want him to know that he is complete and whole. I explained to him that our family, though unconventional, is super cool. That turned into a conversation about happiness and challenging societal norms, which ultimately turned into a conversation about patriarchy and how a family is just as valid with a mom only, a dad only, two moms, two dads, a mom and a dad and any other variation. What matters most is that whatever the makeup of the family, it’s a safe, healthy and supportive place for everyone to live their best lives.

How do you feel now when you think of your family?

I feel happy and proud. I love our duo. We have so much fun! I get to teach him all the things that I wish someone taught me. I think we are a testament to creative new school parenting and a whole lotta old school, good old-fashioned love.

Annie, Polly, Patrick, and Jack

Annie Harper, 44, writer, publishing strategist, and Executive Editor at Interlude Press, is married to Polly Flint, 44, counselor at Ali Forney Center. They live in Nyack, New York with their son Jack, 12. Patrick Bradbury, 45, Jack’s father, lives in Tuxedo, New York and owns a boutique communications agency, Bradbury Lewis.

How’d your family come together?

Patrick and Annie met when they were teenagers and formed a close friendship. Annie met Polly in Wisconsin when they were both 23, and they got married two years later. Patrick stood up for Annie at the wedding. So we were already family when we started the conversation [about having Jack], in the sense that we were good friends who celebrated holidays together, vacationed together, etc.

(from left to right) Patrick, Polly, Jack, Annie

There’s some debate about who first brought up the idea of making a baby together, [between the three of us]. Patrick says it was his dad who mentioned it one Thanksgiving. Polly says Patrick mentioned it the year after the wedding. Whoever said it first, we talked about it for a few years before we made a concrete plan.

Patrick and Annie are both Pisces, so all three of us would travel to Santa Fe together for their March birthdays. We were staying in a mountain cabin at 8,500 feet when we decided we weren’t just going to make a baby together; we would become a family.

Since Patrick had an established career in New York and Annie was a writer who could benefit from more opportunities in the city, we agreed that Annie and Polly would move to Brooklyn. We lived in the same brownstone — Patrick on the third floor, and Annie and Polly on the fourth. It was a wonderfully convenient way for Patrick to be part of Jack’s life when he was an infant. When Jack was two years old, Annie and Polly moved out to Nyack, in the Lower Hudson Valley. Patrick moved to nearby Tuxedo a couple of years later.

What does “traditional family” mean to you?

Although we are unconventional by society’s standards, we are quite traditional. Jack always has a parent at home, we have family dinners, we all show up at games and school events. We celebrate every holiday, birthday, father’s day, mother’s day and birthday together.

We’re all just lake kids, living in New York. When we take our son back to the lakes we grew up on, often all together, we about as postcard-traditional as you can get.

Jack wanted to add: “A family doesn’t have to be related. A family is people who care for each other and stand up for each other.”

What’s surprised you in a good way about carving your own path?

Everyone — including Jack — agrees that it’s all been pretty seamless. We have an ease about us that we fell into pretty quickly. That ease is partly due to our shared values and common experience, having grown up in the same part of the country. But it’s also because we’re old friends who respect each other.

Also, we’re very good at sharing our son. We chose to parent together, so we don’t argue about the little things. We have different parenting styles, but we don’t micromanage each other. Why would we do that to the people we deemed worthy enough to start a family with?

What’s been harder than expected?

This was an illuminating question.

Patrick said, “Adapting to Jack. When Jack was a little boy, it was Jack adapting to us. And now that he’s almost a teenager, it’s us adapting to him. We’re learning how to accept his choices.”

Polly said, “When we started this family, I didn’t know where I fit in. But really, everybody else knew who I was, but I didn’t.”

Do you have any memorable anecdotes around the fact that your family is “untraditional”?

People sometimes can’t figure us out, and that’s fun to watch. One time, we went out for Italian food along with Patrick’s former partner. The way we ended up sitting in the booth was boy-girl, boy-girl. So when we got up to leave, people were surprised when Annie left with Polly and Patrick left with his partner.

When Jack was three, we told him, “If anyone asks you why you have two moms and a dad, tell them it’s because you’re lucky.” So, for years, when a friend asked him about his parents, that was always his answer.

One day, we heard Jack say this to a friend when we were walking to the park. His friend shouted at his mother, “Mom, why can’t we get another mom?”

How do you feel now when you think of your family?

Patrick: Grateful.
Annie: Proud.
Polly: Sure and right.
Jack: Happy.

Andrew, Eliza, Allana, Ana, Mary, and Mei

Andrew McDade, 55, spin instructor and soccer coach, is married to Eliza Armstrong, 50, 7th grade math teacher. Their daughters are Mei, 14, adopted as a baby; Mary, 15; Ana, 18 (not pictured); and Allana, 19, who they welcomed to the family five years ago. They live in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

How’d your family come together?

In 1990, Eliza Armstrong met Andrew McDade. Yours truly (Ana) came along nine years and a wedding later, and Mary three years after that. We were both biological children. After a move to the suburbs from Washington Heights, Mei was adopted from Changsha, China in September of 2004 at 10 months old.

My father was the stay-at-home parent when we were growing up, but entertained stints as our school’s “Yoga/Soccer Instructor.” In 2009, my mother switched careers to teaching 7th grade math and soon after was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in recovery by fall of 2010, when we met my fourth sister, Allana.

In my mom’s second year of teaching, Allana was one of her students. One day, Allana hadn’t done her homework, so she had to ride in my mom’s car behind the school bus on the way to a field trip. Then my mom bonded with Lorna, Allana’s great aunt and caretaker, over their shared breast cancer experience. Eventually, Allana began staying at our house so my mom could help her more closely with homework. Through these homework nights, she became very close to our family.

That following summer, Allana came on a month-long cross-country road trip with us. After that, there was no question that she had become a sister figure in our life (we call each other god sisters), that this was our family now. After some changes in her home life, she lived with us full-time until she went away to college, but she still visits her biological family often.

What does “traditional family” mean to you?

Allana: A traditional family to me is being able to have connections and bond with people who love each other. Growing up, I wanted a traditional family. When I was living with my aunt Lorna, I felt alone, as there were no other kids in the house. I don’t think I had as much support growing up as I have now. I didn’t have many people on my side, making sure I’m okay, making sure I’m doing my work and taking care of myself. My perspective on that changed when I met Eliza in 7th grade. I had someone to encourage me, who wanted to help me.

(from top left) Allana, Andrew, Eliza, Mei, Mary (Ana is not pictured)

Ana: Growing up, I always thought of Norman Rockwell when I thought of “traditional families.” Biologically-related, heterosexual parents, a perfect Thanksgiving scene. And I love Norman Rockwell, but I don’t think that’s traditional anymore. In 21st century America, I think it’s traditional to have some complications. It’s just not as easy to explain your family to everyone.

In contrast to Allana, I had stability while growing up. In hindsight, because of the stability, I never questioned things that were different, like my stay-at-home dad or that I had an adopted sister. Kids would ask questions, but it wasn’t until the aforementioned road trip of 2011 that I realized our family was a bit different. When we would walk into restaurants in rural places, conversations would immediately cease as every gaze followed us to our table. That was jarring.

What’s surprised you in a good way about carving your own path?

Allana: How accepting everyone’s been towards me. I think people would show it if they had problems with Eliza and Andrew adopting Mei or me being around. But no one’s ever displayed animosity towards me. It is wonderful how kind everyone is, even though I came along a bit unconventionally.

Ana: This question is funny for me, because it’s not like we sit down at dinner and go, “Wow, look at how amazing our nontraditional family is!” But it is also nice to know that our reality of just being a family does challenge those around us, and pushes the narrative of what family means to the forefront of others’ minds. We are just as much as of a family with or without our shared DNA, and I like knowing that it makes others reckon with how they define families and familiar relationships.

What’s been harder than expected?

Ana: I know that it’s easier for Mary and me because we physically look like our parents. Mei, however, has definitely been grappling with her identity and the unanswered questions from her personal history. Self-identity is hard for any 14-year-old, but it’s especially hard when you look different from your family and have some gaps in knowing where you came from. That’s a challenge for everyone in our family, because we want to to help Mei find the answers to such simple questions like, “Do I look like my birth mother?” Even though we have visited Changsha and tried to learn about and participate in Chinese culture as a family, it’s not the same as having answers.

Allana: Letting people in. I don’t really feel comfortable letting everyone know my feelings, so when I was asked to express myself within a close-knit family, that was very hard at first. Also, balancing my time with the McDades and my biological family. Sometimes I feel like I have to choose and I don’t want to feel like I’m picking one side over the other, because I don’t want to upset anyone.

Do you have any memorable anecdotes around the fact that your family is “untraditional”?

Ana: For a while, we had a Cuban paralympic cyclist living with us while he was getting surgery at NYU. He had just gone through his largest surgery, and frankly looked like a mummy with the amount of skull bandages he was rocking. One night, all seven of us rolled up to our middle school choir concert in Ridgewood. My parents always laugh about it, the looks we would get at school events; you could just see people trying to figure us out and not being able to.

Mei: There was a boy in my Spanish class in 6th grade who simply did not believe Mary was my sister. After a certain point, I got tired of trying to convince him, because what’s the point? But I told Mary this, and one day she just confronted him in the hallway to back me up. I had never seen him so intimidated. He stopped bothering me after that, thank goodness.

How do you feel now when you think of your family?

Allana: So grateful that I met them, and that they offer me so much support and love. I was talking to my cousin about it recently, and she said she thinks I still would have gone to college and been successful even if I hadn’t met them, but I really don’t know. It’s wild to think about how different my life could have been without the opportunities and support I have now.

Ana: This is the first time I’ve lived away from my family. I love my life in Cochabamba, Bolivia, but I miss the unabashed giddiness I feel when I’m around my family, especially my sisters. Like Allana, the support system from my parents is something I am so grateful for. I just feel so proud of each of them. They are each such incredible individuals.

Photos by Seher Sikandar and Savanna Ruedy; check out Seher’s website here and follow her on Instagram @rehes. Check out Savanna’s website here and follow her on Instagram @savannarr.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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