What comes to mind when you think of family? A mother, father, siblings; maybe grandparents. In Pakistan, that’s what the typical family structure consists of. And if you live in a joint family, throw in a set of uncles and aunts to the mix. But not all families follow this typical format. After all, families are always much more complicated than meets the eye.
To say my family is complicated would be a bit of an understatement. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin. My mom was my dad’s second wife. He had separated from his first wife when he met my mother. In typical cliche fashion, they met at work and got married soon after. But a few months after my first birthday, my parents separated and my dad got back together with his first wife – who, by the way, is Swiss. So let’s add that to the mix. When I was around 7, my parents got back together and some time before that, my dad and his first wife got divorced. And now we’re done with the complicated bit, I promise.
When I look back at the logistics of it all, it’s honestly a mess and, I’ll admit, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. You’d think that among all that complication would be a lot of resentment, jealousy and hate, right? But that’s where my family defies all norms and breaks all stereotypes.
I have two siblings from my dad’s first marriage – a brother and sister – both quite older than me. And even though they’re technically my ‘half-siblings,’ it never felt that way to us. My mom always told me I have a brother and sister – not a half-brother and half-sister. Our family is truly a blended family, we’re even a mix of East and West, and there’s never been an ounce of negativity between us siblings.
Before my parents got back together, I remember visiting my dad twice a week or so and boy, do I have great memories of that time. My dad would be busy working and I would only see him at lunch so I would spend the whole day with my sister and step-mom. My step-mom, M, would pick me up from school and has honestly been such a great influence in my life. She taught me manners and etiquette; she’s the reason I never put my elbows on the dinner table! At lunch time, she would make sure all my favourite things were made. Our family always drinks espresso after lunch – it’s just a thing – and there’s always a piece of chocolate that accompanies the coffee. Obviously, I was too young for coffee but M made sure that I got my piece of chocolate every time. I would look forward to that chocolate so much that I would literally nibble on it like a mouse and savour every bit. We even have a tradition involving the chocolate wrapper! My dad would make glasses out of the wrappers for my sister and I. To this day, I don’t know how he does it.
My relationship with my siblings is special in its own way. My sister and I used to do those typical sisterly things – singing along to pop music and falling in love with Harry Potter. I remember raiding her makeup stash when I was younger! She had the funkiest nail polishes – blue, yellow, green – and you best believe, I used them all. Don’t worry, we used to have screaming matches too. It was, and still is, a love-hate relationship. But no one cried on her wedding more than me. I tried to keep a brave face but then came rukhsati time and I literally bawled. I’d still deny it though.
My brother and I, on the other hand, have an even stronger bond, despite the significant age difference. We can go from being in a heated debate over politics to laughing at an episode of Fawlty Towers. In true brother fashion, he’s the one who introduced me to Ali G and Borat (my eye will never be the same) and he’s the reason I will flip out over a Bayern Munich match. He’s my go-to person for college and career advice.
My brother was already in college when I was born and moved to Switzerland soon after. I was ten years old on his wedding and it was my first experience of a white wedding and I will never forget it. He and his wife started the getting-married-on-an-Italian-lake trend way before Deepika and Ranveer. They had a ceremony in Pakistan too and everyone from Switzerland stayed in our house, and subsequently got food poisoning. You’d think my mom and M wouldn’t get along but they’re actually friends and M always stays with us when she visits.
Even though I love my siblings, I probably love my bhabhi way more. She is my favourite family member. She’s always treated me like an adult, even when my parents didn’t. She’s gone out to cafes with me and given me serious relationship advice. Now that I’m older, we have an even stronger bond. Just a few months ago I was visiting them in Switzerland, and she and I would be in her bed watching Jane the Virgin with tubs of ice cream. My brother did not approve.
Clockwise: my sister-in-law, my sister, my brother and me
When people meet us, they’re always surprised at how well our family gets along. Especially since my mom is Pakistani and M is Swiss. But my mom made sure that I never felt that my family was different than my friends. You’d think the two would clash but I grew up celebrating Christmas and Eid with equal fervor. And if this was any other family, that would never have happened. But my parents, especially my mom and her family, were always encouraging me to learn about my siblings’ culture and religion. As I get older, I realize that having exposure to the West at such a young age made a big difference but I cannot deny that none of that would have been possible if the Pakistani side of my family wasn’t open-minded, liberal and tolerant. This family would not be what it is if there weren’t any willingness from all sides involved – my mom, M, my dad and their respective families.
I’m not saying it was all sunshine and roses all the time. Of course not. But whatever tensions there were between the parents, it never affected us kids, at least not me. My blended family is not the only one like this. All around the world, there are children being raised by single parents or step-parents or adopted parents. Some children are even being raised by grandparents! And each and every one of these is a family, as strong as yours or mine.
When I watched films like Cinderella or Snow White, I never understood why the step-mothers were made to be the most vile creatures on earth. Today, I realize that it’s such films that perpetuate hate in places they don’t belong. No matter what went down between parents, it should NEVER affect the kids. My mother, father and step-mom made absolute sure of that. Because a child is innocent in the entire situation.
If you or anyone you know is ever in a similar situation, there are a few things to remember that might help make the situation better:
- Your parents are more than just parents. I know it’s easy to forget that sometimes, for them and us, but they are not limited to being a mother or father – or even a husband or wife. They are people and they get to make mistakes.
- Children are innocent. No matter what the situation is like between parents, children should never be the ones to suffer. They are a chance for you to make things right and to sort things out. If it wasn’t for us kids, my family would never be this way. But they made it work for us.
- Look at it from their perspective. Again, easier said than done. But you have to try. Everyone has a reason for being the way they are or doing what they’re doing. So look at the intention behind the action. Look at how the other person must be feeling. If you have a step-sibling, put yourself in their shoes. It makes a world of a difference.
- Find time to bond. Even the worst of enemies can find something they like and laugh over. Find that middle ground and something that will help you bond as a family. A little laughter will go a long way.
I really hope we change the way we view families that don’t fit the typical structure. Yes, there are some very unfortunate circumstances that some people go through – some parents abandon their children; some husbands are cruel to their families; some step-mothers treat their step-children like they’re not worthy of love. But this is not the norm.
Families come in all shapes, sizes and formats – but none of them deserve to be judged.