Grieving Preconceptions of a “Normal Family”

Is this really my life? I sometimes find myself asking.

On good days, I ask because I can’t believe my luck. For the past few years, I’ve been in a rebuilding phase. I gave birth to my now five-year-old son nearly a whole trimester early, and was simultaneously in a violent relationship with his father, which I escaped three and a half years ago. Those twin traumas wreaked their havoc, and reclaiming my autonomy, livelihood, and spirit have been quite a process. Today, I run my own business, work a second full-time job at a college, write on multiple platforms, volunteer in my community, do my time with a great therapist, and mother a happy, healthy, thriving child. What do I have to complain about, right?

On bad days, I ask because I never imagined I would be a domestic violence survivor and solo mom. I also ask because at present, I’m in a relationship with a great man, someone I knew for years before we lost touch, someone who unexpectedly came back into my life at the start of all this rebuilding, someone who was patient and compassionate and reliable when I was ready to not trust any man ever again. We took it slow; he didn’t push. After a while, he met my son—a few trips to the park where we arrived and left separately, then he came over a few times, then we visited him a few times, and suddenly Jax was asking every day, Where’s D? Is D coming with us to the store? I want to ride in D’s truck! Recently, we took the plunge and moved in together, and things are going really well. I am grateful for companionship, for an extra set of eyes on my energetic offspring, for D’s warmth and sense of humor and back rubs, for his ability to tell me what’s wrong with my car the day before it starts making strange noises, and so much more.

But—and this is a but that caught me off guard and is painful to write—he is not the father of my child, and the opportunity to have what I always thought of as a “normal family” is lost. And I’m surprised how much it hurts.

Is this really my life?

My parents divorced when I was two years old, and when both remarried, I had reasonably healthy relationships with my stepdad and stepmom. Before I turned 30, I scoffed at the idea of marriage and kids. Blood does not a family make, I thought with the conviction of lived experience. Never! I proclaimed when people insisted I’d change my mind about that “normal life” parenthood and marriage stuff…until one guy made me reconsider and ultimately desire those things. One guy seemed to get me, and me him, so much that when those two blue lines on that stick surprised me, I didn’t freak out for more than few minutes. Is this really my life? That guy seemed so happy to be making a family with me. That guy happens to be the one who terrorized my mind and body. MY life?

It isn’t that guy that I miss, but yet another thing he took from me.

One night about six months ago, Jax came flying into the living room and leapt onto the couch between me and D. We tickled and teased him, and our eyes met over his squirming little body. In that precise moment, I felt this pang: I will never have a moment like this with a child of mine and that child’s father. I hated that I felt it, but that moment of closeness, no matter how genuine and sweet, did not belong to the three of us in the same ways.

And no such moment ever will. I can’t have more children; doctors have indicated I shouldn’t try, since I’m 36 now, have cervical challenges, and am at great risk of miscarriage or another extremely premature birth that might not have the miraculous ending my first one did. D is accepting, but sometimes—Is this really my life?—I actually think about what it would be like to have a baby with him. Further, I wish I could, in my lifetime, experience having a partner treat me kindly during pregnancy, put his hands on my belly with tenderness, talk to our baby, rub my feet, bring me food, help me prepare a nursery, time my contractions, cry with me when we hold our baby for the first time… I never had any of that.  Other times, when I’m the paradigmatic exhausted mama, I’m relieved that Jax is my one-hit wonder. Fully sharing the parental load would be nice, but D is not even Jax’s stepfather.

Still, lately, even as my half-hearted desire for marriage and more kids (with a safe partner) persists, I am grieving the loss of what was my one shot at a “normal family.” I know that might sound absurd or even unfair to D, but it’s how I feel. I never wanted one, until I did, and then I had to leave it behind to survive. What I mourn is not Jax’s father, the person; what I mourn is the chance to raise a child with someone equally responsible for creating him. I will never curl up in bed with my son and his father for a movie night, the blood-scent of us stronger than pizza or popcorn. I will never be one of two people holding hands while watching their child in a school play or a baseball game or at high school graduation while feeling that mix of pride for my child and gratitude to his father for his part in making him so that I might experience being someone’s mother. I will never walk behind my partner and my son, admiring their similar build and gait, or look at them across a dining room table and see two flashes of the same dimple and impish grin.

Instead, I am rebuilding family, literally and conceptually. I will grieve, and then move on by focusing not on what I don’t have, but what I do have: a man who chooses to love my son and me, and a little boy who loves us both.

Is this really my life? It is. I made it, just like anyone with a “normal family” did.

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Stacia Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal is a poet, essayist, blogger, and mama residing in central Pennsylvania. Her essays have appeared at Salon, Scary Mommy, ESME, Quaint Magazine, and more, and are forthcoming at Blood+Milk. She has published two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines and several anthologies, and were recently nominated for Best of the Net 2017. She is director of the Center for Creative Writing and blogs at


  1. What an amazing article Stacia. I’m lucky to have this kind of work shared. I’m proud of what this magazine is becoming.

    If it helps in any way whatsoever. There was a man that lived with us for 4 years and he was like a father to me. He died of cancer when I was 13. I grieve for him more now, than I do for my own biological father that only died 4 or 5 years ago.

    As you say, blood does not maketh a family – what you put into it does!

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