Love Is The Thread: Secrets to Strong, Happy Relationships

Modern families share their secret for strong, happy relationships

My mom battled mental illness in the 1990s in a small affluent Midwest community where words like “crazy” were heaped onto an unbudging wall of “things we do not talk about.” Depression eventually took her life, but her legacy helped me and my brother break down that oppressive wall. We unabashedly talk about mental health and advocate for it.

When my mother was well, her creative outlet was quilting. The hum of her sewing machine meant sunshine in our home; her colorful quilts with unexpected combinations of patterns were tied together with a thread of love. 

While sewing didn’t stick for me, what did stick was the idea of threading what is seemingly impossible to connect into a cohesive whole. 

The quilts are draped over the beds in our home and thrown across chairs, a cozy legacy of creativity and collaboration, qualities that resonate deeply in metro Detroit’s tapestry of today’s modern and diverse families. 

Tied together by a thread of love

In each of our homes we get to decide what family looks like for us despite perceptions others may have of what does and doesn’t make a family. Meet three modern families living and loving in metro Detroit. The thread that ties them all together? Love. 

Yodit and son: Successful single co-parent

Yodit Mesfin Johnson, mom and co-parent to one and bonus mom/auntie to many blood and non-blood-related youth, describes herself as a “Black Momma, activist and racial justice strategist… (a) cultural worker with an abolitionist mind and a visionary heart.”

Johnson’s roots are in Tigray, Ethiopia and the American South. Raised in Detroit, she currently lives in Ypsilanti with her son. She describes her family as being “beautifully complex.” She co-parents her son with her former husband in separate homes and states. 

“We center our child and his needs above all. We love each other regardless of choosing not to be partnered anymore,” she says. 

Love has evolved across generations of her family — across race, ethnicity, faith and geography. 

“We have figured out love in a country that didn’t see us as fully human for a time. We’ve figured out love amid internalized racialized trauma; we’ve loved through different generational versions of love — love for survival, love for struggle, love for freedom, love for who we are, and what we bring to the world,” she says.

Co-founder of Black Men Read, an organization that promotes connection through reading, Johnson carries her family’s love into the community, bringing people together through story. 

“For us, love is a radical act. It’s actually much easier to hate or be apathetic to others or their needs. Radical love is a verb, it’s active. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree or fight. It means we don’t give up on each other — no one is disposable. It means we are not violent towards each other. It means we see each other as fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who never chose to love or not love us because of what was different or unique about us,” she says.

Sitts Family: Grandmother and single dad

Karen Sitts, a retired doula, is a rural Michigan grandmother and homeschool teacher to her single son Stephen’s only daughter, Bryklen, an eighth grader with autism. 

While her son works long hours at a factory to support his family, she is at home with Bryklen.

“Stephen daily sends text messages wishing us a good day and telling us he loves us. His working every day, and my husband working as well… show practical love,” she says.

She never heard her parents say they loved her, though she figured they did. “I pretty much did the opposite with my own children,” she says, adding how proud she is to see how often Stephen expresses his love to his family.

“Bryklen has always had a hard time with physical touch and in communicating her feelings, but recently she, on her own, asked me for a goodbye hug… That seemed like a huge sign that she is absorbing love and becoming more open.”

Heather and family: ‘Modern Day Brady Bunch’

Heather Dearden, wife and mom to eight, describes herself as the “manager of the fur-babies, dinner preparer, activity Uber driver and homework quality assurance specialist.” If that’s not enough, Dearden, of Canton, is an active-duty soldier stationed in Inkster since 2020. 

When she met her husband, Josh, they both came to the marriage with two children, but they knew they wanted to grow their family. They refer to themselves as the modern-day Brady Bunch. 

“We express love in our family by always eating dinner (together). With our busy life and schedule, I want the girls to know that the dinner table is a place that we can come together, even if it is for 10-15 minutes just to talk and enjoy each other’s company. It is something that I remember as a child doing with my parents, and I want my kids to have that core memory as well,” she says. 

Dearden’s dedication to her family extends beyond her home’s walls as she works to defend our country. 

“Being on active duty, I don’t always have a lot of time with my kids or husband, so when we do have extra time together, we want to spend quality time together. We want to make as many core family memories as possible because I know that this time doesn’t last,” she says.

“(My girls) know that no matter what, family is family and we will forever be connected.”

Love Chat

Love McPherson, Chicago mom, national TV personality and relationship expert, knows way more than a thing or two about love and relationships. We tapped into the certified marriage and family counselor’s mind to get some tips for navigating modern relationships with kids.

The interest of children seems to be at the heart of the decisions of modern family dynamics. Can you expand on that? 

Love McPherson: The transition from couple-focused families to child-centered families can be attributed to several societal changes. One significant factor is the evolving role of women in the workforce. As more women entered the workforce, the dynamics of family life shifted. Dual-income households became more common, and as a result, parents often had less time to devote to each other. This shift also led to an increased focus on children, as parents sought to compensate for their absence by investing more time, energy and money into their kids.

However, it’s essential to recognize that while the intentions behind child-centered parenting are often well-meaning, the consequences can be complex. Studies indicate that children raised in homes where parents prioritize their own relationship and maintain love and connection tend to be happier and more emotionally secure. A strong parent relationship can serve as the foundation for a healthy family environment because we learn our relationship skills from how our caregivers related to each other. When parents model a loving, supportive team, they provide their children with the tools for healthy relationships and emotional well-being.

Furthermore, child-centered parenting can potentially create undue pressure on the child to reciprocate and fulfill the emotional needs of their parents. This can lead to children feeling overwhelmed or responsible for their parents’ happiness, which isn’t a fair or sustainable expectation.

How do families break the stigma of what society deems “modern families?”

LM: Stigmas modern families may face can include everything from their non-traditional family structures, morality, religious beliefs, to their parenting styles and the level of freedom afforded their children. I would suggest families lead by education and example. 

Research has shown that the structure of a family matters less than the quality of the relationships within it. It’s important to note that these stigmas are not reflective of the reality of modern families but rather people’s perceptions of other people’s choices. Modern families can be loving, supportive and nurturing environments for children, just like traditional families. 

Overcoming these stigmas involves challenging stereotypes, advocating for recognition and acceptance and promoting diversity in family structures. But I feel that the greater emphasis on mindset change should begin at home. When the children courageously embrace their loving families, they will be less likely to be crushed under the criticisms, myths and lies.

What are the biggest challenges that blended families face. Do you have any advice on how to overcome this? 

LM: Some families are more marbled than blended. There are clear lines of separation that show up in marbles. There is a sense of oneness when something is blended. Here are some ways that families fail to come together to create a healthy blend.

  1. Spousification: Spousification is when parents turn to their children for emotional support. It can be detrimental in blended families because it can create a sense of responsibility and loyalty conflicts for the child. To overcome this challenge, it’s crucial for parents to maintain appropriate boundaries with their children. They should seek emotional support from adults, friends or professionals rather than burdening their children with adult concerns and emotions. Encourage open communication within the family so that children feel safe expressing their feelings without fear of taking sides.
  2. Discipline of the child: The question of discipline in blended families can be a source of tension. To address this challenge, it’s essential for parents to have open and honest discussions concerning their expectations and approaches to discipline before getting married. Establish a unified approach to discipline that both biological and stepparents can agree on. This may involve setting clear boundaries, defining roles and discussing consequences for misbehavior. Consistency in discipline is key to avoiding confusion and resentment among children. Also remember: Rules without relationship equals rebellion.
  3. Using kids as a weapon: Sometimes, parents in blended families may inadvertently use their children as a means of control or manipulation in conflicts with their ex-partners. … It’s imperative that parents prioritize the well-being of their children over their egos, anger, betrayal or retaliation. 
  4. Kids envy and feeling misplaced: Children in blended families may struggle with feelings of envy, insecurity or feeling replaced with a new set of kids. They might compare themselves to stepsiblings or struggle with adjusting to a new family dynamic. To address this challenge, parents and stepparents should foster a sense of belonging and inclusion within the family. Spend quality time together as a family, engage in activities that promote bonding, and encourage open dialogue about feelings and concerns. Validate the children’s emotions and reassure them of their importance within the family.

 What advice do you have for moms and dads who have separated but have decided to still function as a family unit? 

  1. Communication! Communication! Communication! Safe, open and effective communication is imperative to successful co-parenting. Communicate to each other, to the child and all parties involved in the child’s well-being. Make sure you are both on the same page. I would strongly recommend that coparents make a practice of reiterating what they feel they heard the other parent say or follow up with the conversation with a text or email. 
  2. Choose the high road: When someone goes low, it may be your knee-jerk reaction to determine how low you can go. Resist the urge and go high instead.
  3. Do it for the kids: The central focus of co-parenting should always be the well-being and emotional health of the children. Ensure that your decisions, actions and interactions are in their best interests. 
  4. Create positive memories, not traumas: Our brains store our strong emotions, good and bad. Be intentional about creating positive family memories that will follow your children for a lifetime. Family trips, holidays or special occasions spent together can reinforce the sense of family and belonging for the children.
  5. Don’t mislead the kids: Many children have secret wishes and prayers that their parents will get back together. Don’t confuse your children with violating boundaries of intimacy or misleading language. Be direct concerning the nature of your relationship with them and each other.

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Steffy McCourt
Steffy McCourt
Steffy McCourt brings over 15 years of experience in education, parenting, and travel writing for esteemed publications like We Are Teachers and LA Family Travel. Recognized for her commitment to advancing literacy and writing skills, Steffy is honored to be a Fellow of the National Writing Project. She collaborates with educators nationwide to enhance teaching practices and empower student writers.

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