The Hawaiian term “ohana” is the central theme of Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” (one of our family favorites). I think of this movie often, especially because I like that the idea of ohana in the movie comes to encompass all special people in a person’s life, whether related by blood, marriage, adoption, or circumstance.
In the movie, Lilo’s ohana was forced to change, pretty dramatically, after she and her sister suffered the loss of their parents. Eventually, it came to be that Stitch, Jumba, Pleakley, David and even Cobra Bubbles all became part of Lilo’s extended ohana.
My “modern family” fortunately did not suffer this kind of loss, but even still, divorce has displaced two of my daughters and brought a new bonus-mother and more blessings of children into the fold. Our ohana has evolved and changed pretty dramatically over time. We’re not alone: Blended families are far more common now than ever before as divorce is losing the stigma it used to carry. As both former spouses find new lives, creating new bonds can strengthen the ohana, make love and support more abundant in childrens’ lives, and, most importantly, can show the children that just because they’re separated from a parent or parents part of the time, they haven’t lost their family.
As my wife and I started on our journey, it was extremely important to both of us that my two older daughters be engaged in our relationship. They participated in our wedding and my wife said vows not only to me, but to my daughters as well, showing her commitment to building a family unit with them. They were young at the time, and might not have fully understood the meaning behind it, but I believe as time progressed, they saw the value in their bonus mom and the relationship they share (we’ve always used the term “bonus mom” instead of “stepmom”). Finding a way to get my older kids involved in the new relationship and making them a formal part of our wedding ceremony will forever be meaningful to all of us. It showed my two older daughters that they were moving forward with us, not away from us, and gaining instead of losing. We wanted them to know they were a core, foundational part of this new bonus family and not just weekend house guests.
The Expanding Family
When my wife and I had our first daughter together, it never crossed our minds that my older girls would be her “half-sisters” or “step-sisters.” They’ve always just been “sisters.” At the time, the younger of my two older daughters was 7. Prior to that, she had always been the youngest in the family and we wanted to do something to let her know we understood that a new baby was as big a deal to her as it was to us. We bought her a “big sister” t-shirt and gave it to her the day she and my eldest came to visit the new baby at the hospital. It was a small gesture, but it really meant a lot to my daughter.
Sadly, my two older daughters moved away with their mom shortly after that, so we knew that keeping that connection was going to be even more difficult. It was and is difficult for my wife and I because we miss the two older girls, but, perhaps even more so, the little sisters (we now have two more daughters together) and the big sisters are separated most of the time by 3000 miles.
Still, we wanted to keep all of the children as connected as possible. Somehow, we’ve managed to retain a very strong family bond, so when the big girls come to visit, we quickly and comfortably settle into being six rather than four. One thing that’s become a tradition for us is commemorating the visits (which are only twice a year) with professional family photos, especially of the four sisters. Several stores offer professional photo options and they’re fairly inexpensive. It’s a great way to capture the magic of all the kids together. We typically send a care package to the big sisters after they go back to their mom’s house so that they have the framed photos for their rooms.
Social media is helpful for staying connected, especially for the older kids, as they are active on sites like Facebook. The fact is, however, that a handwritten letter sent via snail mail is one of the best ways I’ve found to stay connected. It’s an old-fashioned idea, at least in kids’ minds, but handwritten letters between parents and children carry so much meaning. Our lives are so technologically driven, and we miss so many opportunities to take the time to jot down a note and share our experiences. When I throw in a drawing from a younger sibling, it makes a handwritten letter even more special.
Another idea that my 11-year-old and I came up with is the “One-Sentence Story” by email. Here’s how it works: I start off with a sentence and email it to her. She then forwards that sentence plus another to her bonus mom. The story keeps getting passed among all of us, and becomes more elaborate each time. When it’s complete, we publish the finished story through a website as a real book and becomes a great keepsake for all of us.
Ohana means family, and really, that’s what it’s all about: Build a strong family unit and the rest will fall into place.