THERE IS NO precise word for what 35-year-old Mark Lanyon is to
10-year-old Emily Richman Lanyon.
"He's in between a brother and an uncle," figured Emily, an
Evanston, Ill., fifth grader. "He gives me piggyback rides and I
like hanging on him. It's weird that we have the same father, isn't
Technically, they are half-brother and sister. But they look
more like father and daughter or uncle and niece. And they act like
some hybrid of all those relationships, lots of tickling, tackling,
the occasional disciplinary tone, all cemented by a connection that
is unmistakably family.
But what exactly are they? Multi-generational half siblings?
Wide-age-gap half siblings?
"I guess I'm a distant brother," said Lanyon, a remodeling
contractor who exists in the friend/sibling/playmate/parent limbo
inhabited by many adult children of divorce who have young brothers
It is a relationship even the experts have not yet defined.
"This is uncharted territory, a real frontier," said Judith
Wallerstein, among the country's leading divorce researchers.
"These are the new relationships in American life, and we don't
have a name for them because none of the conventional words work
anymore. To just call it `sister, brother, half sister,' is not to
grasp what they really entail."
The divorce boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s - and the
steady 50 percent failure rate for first marriages - triggered an
endless array of studies on stepfamilies and blended families, the
failure rate of second marriages, the stepmother-adolescent
relationship and post-divorce co-parenting. But there has been
little exploration of the relationships between half siblings with
large age gaps.
So where does everyone fit?
While a younger half brother or sister's devotion and charm can
lure an older sibling into the new family, it is not easy watching
one's father so earnestly trying to do it right the second time
"I'm glad he had a second chance. And my relationship with the
kids couldn't be better. I feel like I've never left childhood
because there's always someone playing games in the house," said
Mackenzie Stanley, 20, an architecture student at the University of
Illinois who spent the summer with her father, stepmother,
18-year-old brother, 4-year-old half sister and 9-year-old half
brother in the Chicago area.
"But it's also hard to live in the house and watch it. You feel
like you're walking on needles because they're this nuclear family
and you're just leftovers. They love us, but it's different," she
A key to healthy relations between children of family A and B
is that the parent left behind, usually mom, finds ways to permit
the new relationships to form, said Frances Stott, dean of academic
programs at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. "The other parent
must give permission to the older children for their relationships
with the new ones to flourish," she said.
Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of these
relationships is the older siblings' sense of loyalty to the other
parent, especially if he or she has not remarried.
"To my little brother and sister, my mother is this mystery
person," said Mackenzie Stanley. "It makes me sad that I can't
share my mom with them because I love her so much."
Such multi-generational families are becoming increasingly
common, said Constance Ahrons, director of the Marriage and Family
Therapy Program at the University of Southern California. …