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Nontraditional family learns the true meaning of family

Paxton Aanenson helps his grandparents, Brian and Lisa Aanenson, feed the family's horses, Shiloh and Brandi at their Gary, Minn., farm. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Paxton Aanenson, an energetic four-year-old, was adopted by his grandparents, Lisa and Brian Aanenson in 2012. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Lisa Aanenson shares a laugh with Paxton at their farm near Gary, Minn. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

“We’d agree with them,” said mother Lisa Aanenson, of Gary, Minn. “Then, we’d say ‘But I’m the boss of you.’”

With three sons — Jacob, Jeremy and Justin Ganssle — from her first marriage and a step-daughter turned foster daughter turned adopted daughter — Chelsey Larimore, Lisa and her husband Brian were raising a nontraditional family early on in their lives. She said the family was brought together by unfortunate losses including two divorces and the death of Chelsey’s mother. But, Lisa said dealing with those losses only made the family stronger.

“They’ve all turned into really awesome things, but dealing with the heartache to get where we are is what helped pull us through,” she said.

Her children are now adults, but Lisa’s nontraditional family keeps growing.

In January 2010, Chelsey gave birth to Paxton Aanenson, who was later put into the foster care system. After experiencing an empty nest for several years, Lisa and Brian adopted Paxton on May 16, 2012.

“He woke us up,” Lisa said. “I was turning into this little old lady, who sat in my recliner and crocheted all the time and mowed the lawn and did nothing, and then all the sudden, we’re just these young parents again.”

While she loves the new addition to her family, she said the transition hasn’t been easy.

“I found myself questioning whether I had the strength to be a mom to grown men, a grandma to small children, a wife and a new mom to a very young boy,” she said. “I found out I am (strong enough); we all are.”

Brian added, “It’s nice to have a second chance to have a run at it with the wisdom you gained from the first time.”

Sitting in the Columbia Mall play place, Lisa and Brian, along with their three adult sons, watched Paxton play with their grandson, Zachary Ganssle, Jacob’s son.

“The boys get along like brothers, but they are cousins,” Lisa said. “Actually, no, Paxton is Zachary’s uncle, and Paxton’s uncles are really his brothers. We have fun with it.”

The whole scenario might be a little confusing to explain, but for the Ganssles and Aanensons, it’s simple: they’re all family.

“The only difference is biology,” Brian said.

Lisa added, “We have a history together, and we’re no different from any other family except for biology.”

The challenges

And, like any family, Lisa’s has had its own challenges.

Brian said the exes created the most challenges.

“I had the ex who wanted to be the dad, and Brian’s presence kind of made it tough,” Lisa said.

They also dealt with challenges from the foster care system and adoption process, but Lisa said the biggest challenge of raising a nontraditional family is just getting everyone to understand that despite biology, they’re still family.

The boys, now grown men, joke about being the milk man’s son or the Schwan’s guy’s kid in good fun, but when they were young, similar phrases were used as a defense.

“I think that when there were arguments in the family, things were taken real personal, and we had to really work to get past that,” Lisa said.

She said when biological brothers and sisters fight, they always know that they’re still brothers and sisters, and they’re always going to be there for each other and love each other.

“But, when you pull the mixture in … the kids would take it personal,” she said. “The challenge was getting the boys and even Chelsea to understand that we were family and understand that just because the biology wasn’t there, it didn’t mean (we weren’t family).”

Lisa said phrases such as: “They’re not my brothers,” “You’re not my dad” and “My dad likes me better than you” were often used by the kids when fights would arise.

“I was definitely not the mom when Chelsey was mad at me, but boy if she wanted to go shopping,” Lisa said. “And, oh, that girl can shop.”

The boys said the fights were never about their relationships with one another; those were just things they’d say when they were already upset that added to the arguments.

The perks

“(Lisa and I) had to stand together or lose because there were more kids than there were us,” Brian said. He added that they also had to learn to be more than mom and dad.

“You’re more than a parent; you’re also a friend in certain ways,” he said. “You’ve got to be there for the kid and quit trying to be dad and just be a caregiver for your child.”

Lisa said she’s not sure how they handled all the arguments and difficulties of raising a nontraditional family.

“We just dealt with it one day at a time,” she said. “We always seem to find our way, and I’d like to believe we are stronger for it.”

Along with forming stronger bonds, there were other perks of having the mixed family.

“We always had multiple Christmases,” Justin said. “It’d last about a month.”

Other holidays and occasions also called for multiple celebrations including birthdays, Easter and Thanksgiving.

But, maybe the most exciting was that the boys got not one, but two hunting seasons, as their dad lived in North Dakota and their mom lived in Minnesota.

Although Lisa and Brian’s family might be a little more nontraditional than most, she said it seems nontraditional families are becoming the norm.

And, it’s true. Nearly 70 percent of American youth are being raised in nontraditional families today, whether it’s a single parent, stepfamily, foster care or adoptive family, according to Rainbows, an international nonprofit that fosters emotional healing for grieving children.

“Family has kind of turned into yours, mine and ours,” Lisa said. “It’s the people we hold closest to our hearts who we choose to share our lives with.

“Our family — with all of our changes — really isn’t so different than any other family, traditional or not.”

Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
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