I made my family watch Modern Family when it came out because that show was us. There were my loving parents – now divorced but friendly and still co-parenting me — and my brother. There was my well-meaning and kind stepmother.
And now there was my little sister, born 22 years after me (technically, she is my half-sister, but I only use that phrase when someone insists on an explanation for the age difference).
The show was hilarious, just like our own familial life was hilarious – except for when people thought my sister was my child and my dad was my husband (gross).
Our family wasn’t always this way, though.
I grew up in the suburbs playing in a cookie-cutter backyard with my parents, my brother, and the token family dog. I knew a few girls at school with divorced parents, but I didn’t give it a passing thought. After all, my family was closer than most: Both sides – paternal and maternal – not only came to all my soccer games, but shared the holidays together. Now, I realize how rare and special it was — but at the time, I thought everyone had that.
So when my parents did divorce when I was in high school? I laughed because it made no sense (they were always great partners) — and then I cried my eyes out.
I was 16, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew my dad wouldn’t be alone for very long — he just isn’t good at it. And I’ve always had an imagination, so it wasn’t hard to picture the outcomes. Would he find a woman with other children? Would I have to learn how to handle step-siblings? Or would he find someone younger and have a new child? For some reason, that was the scariest option to me.
And by scary, I mean terrifying.
For years, I wrestled with the idea of my dad having another baby. I thought love was a pie, to be split, and I already felt a little ripped off when it came to my piece (it had been a tough few years leading up to the divorce). I cried. I yelled. I vented to my friends, to therapists. No matter what I did, I could not get over it. Believe me, I desperately wanted to be over it.
This idea of another kid in our family was the monkey on my back — especially when my dad married my stepmom.
I liked her a lot. She had no children, though, and it was obvious she loved kids — especially babies. And she just so happened to be in the last of her natural childbearing years. I tormented myself over this possible baby. What if it was a girl? Would I ever be special to my dad again? And then one day, there was this still, small voice inside of me that said it would all be okay. I can’t explain it, though I wish I could. There is no logical reason, no piece of advice someone gave me, explaining why acceptance happened when it did.
But the point is, it did. I can honestly say that from the moment I knew about Ava, I loved her.
This person – who is now six years old – is one of the greatest joys in my life.
Because of her, I learned that love is not a pie at all, but something that is ever-expanding. She didn’t take anything from me. Instead, she gave. Seeing the way my dad loved her so purely and wholly from the moment she was placed in his arms helped me to know I was loved in that same, complete way — before we both let the complications of life distract us.
In that hospital room, my greatest wish was to bottle up all that love so I could give it to her the first time she was bullied, the first time she looked in the mirror and didn’t like what she saw. I wanted her to know there wasn’t ever anything she needed to do to be loved more, or anything she could do to be loved less.
We simply forget that magic kind of love as we grow up. What a privilege it was to be reminded of it.
Besides the occasional (or more than the occasional person assuming she is my daughter, our relationship is actually quite traditional. There is teasing and, there are inside jokes just between us two.
There are promises and surprises and joys only we share. Recently, she realized she would be an aunt if I had children.
Because to Ava, that is so cool. It’s not weird or strange that we have the same dad but different moms. In fact, she adores my mom, similarly to the way I adore hers.
Ava helped me to love myself.
Having a sister who is 22 years my junior is not the same thing as having a daughter or a niece. She looks up to me, as any little sister would. And that age difference affords me some amount of wisdom. I became aware of how I talked about my body in her presence. Would I ever want her to speak of herself like that? I started realizing I had big dreams for her, so why wasn’t I dreaming them for myself?
Look, I would be lying if I said there aren’t tough moments when you go from a traditional Italian family to a very modern one. But the good far outweighs the bad — and I know, in my very bones, that Ava has enriched every part of my life. She is a light and a joy. I didn’t know that I was “missing” a sibling, especially back when I was 22.
But I was. She completed everything.