What Happens When a New Reality Steps In and Changes Your Plans

woman embracing man

My first year of married life was nothing like I’d expected it would be.

When my husband and I decided to make our partnership officially permanent, we were adamant about defining our marriage in a way that would work for us. Both of us had seen examples of marriage that we desperately did not want to repeat, and I had zero interest in playing the traditional role of “wife” as I had seen it modeled for me. So we set about designing our own blueprint for marriage on our terms.

I fancied all our pre-marital planning as very mature and proactive and imagined it would help us intentionally create the life we wanted to share. Oh, the places we’d go! The adventures we would have! The Big Life Goals we would tackle!

Then, a few months before our wedding, we had the chance to offer a home to my two young nieces. We knew only that the living arrangement would probably be temporary and the time period was undefined. I hesitated. My husband and I were urban professionals/extreme sports enthusiasts united in our desire to remain childless. Adding an actual baby plus a three-year-old to our brand new baby family was definitely not in our blueprint!

As the compulsive planner in our family, I busied myself over-analyzing the situation and fretting over all its potential outcomes while my husband calmly embraced the unknown. “They’re family. We’ll figure it out,” was his simple decision process. And with that, we doubled the size of our family and turned our world upside down.

The house was rearranged and work schedules were shuffled to make it work. Our calm sanctuary of a home was suddenly filled with rambunctious roughhousing, baby dancing, and tearful temper tantrums. Our evenings and weekends now involved violin lessons, playing in the park and kid yoga.

We moved from my downtown condo to my husband’s house in the suburbs and gradually settled into a new home routine. We scheduled a standing date night so we could have some time to just be newlyweds. But mostly we enjoyed the kids and our unconventional little family. The girls got to know my husband’s family and we awkwardly tried to explain to my niece why his parents weren’t her grandparents before giving up and agreeing she could call them her “farm grandpa and grandma.”

My husband had never really interacted with children before, but he turned out to be a natural. Watching him bottle feeding the baby early in the morning and swinging the older one around late at night, I fell in love with him even more. When our niece turned four, my husband anointed her his “sous chef” and they made countless real and imaginary dinners together. He let her “help” with his furniture building projects and rigged up a sled to attach to his harness so she could go kite boarding with him on the frozen lakes. In the spring, we cleared out a plot of land for “her garden” and she planted it with the flowers she had carefully selected from the farmer’s market. The baby took her first wobbly steps between our hands and soon graduated to a waddling run.

As we planned for a fifth birthday party, we learned the girls would be moved to another state to be closer to their father. We lobbied for them to stay but the decision was out of our hands.

A week before our one-year wedding anniversary, we took them to the airport and I watched my sister shepherd them through security. The youngest screamed inconsolably as her shoes and bottle were taken for screening. I willed myself to keep it together until the four-year old broke free and darted back to me. As she clutched my neck, she whispered fiercely, “I need you to always remember that I love you.” It was all I could do to blink back my tears and carry her back to my sister, repeating our mantra back to her. I smiled and waved cheerfully until they were out of sight then got into the nearest elevator and lost my shit.

Through the car ride home and the days and weeks that followed, my husband held my hand and we talked through our conflicting emotions and fears. He planned a flurry of activities to keep us out of the oddly quiet house and remind us of all the fun we could still have together. It’s been a few months now and we still miss the girls, of course. But we’ve also re-discovered the joys of being just the two of us.

There’s a lot we didn’t do during our first year of marriage. We didn’t have any of the adventures we set out for, but the ones we had instead were even scarier and more rewarding.

We didn’t visit a foreign country together. But together we navigated our new family roles; we faced the unknown and supported each other in this unplanned adventure. Then together we worked through the readjustment back to a family of two again.

I didn’t learn to kiteboard, but I did learn how to withstand the force of a child’s tantrum, to play like a kid again and to stop and notice the everyday wonders of the world.

I learned my husband doesn’t differentiate between his family and my family. He considers them all our family and will go to the ends of the earth for them.

I learned my husband has a practically limitless potential to sacrifice for our family and yet never plays the role of martyr.

I never made it to that aerial yoga class. But I did learn that my partner is a trustworthy safety net when I’m afraid I might fall flat on my face or just plain fall apart.

I learned that planning for an intentional life is important, but it is no guarantee that life will go according to plan. You can’t control the circumstances life throws at you, but working ahead of time to build a solid foundation will keep you standing when the ground is shifting beneath you.

When I wrote about my wedding day, I said it felt like we were the main characters in a story that was so much bigger than ourselves. This year underlined how true that is for us. Our commitment to each other did more than sustain us as individuals; it also empowered us to go out of our comfort zone to support the people we love. And doing that opened us up to experiencing a whole different kind of love.

Above all, I learned to appreciate, I mean really appreciate, how lucky we are. As adults, we get to decide for ourselves. We each get to share our lives with the people we’ve chosen, the people who love us and make us better people and make our journey both easier and more epic.

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  • Wow. I can not really think of anything smart to say or add to the conversation, except that you are so right about being able and open to embrace life as it comes, even if , maybe moreso, when the unexpected comes.
    I wish you all thebest in your marriage. And so lucky to have your nieces for a while.

  • Wow that is.. intense.

    To live with these girls for so long and then have them taken away like that.. Pfff..

    May you have amny more adventures, as rich and rewarding and as unexpected as this one. And a couple that were plannend and anticipated and lovely too.

  • Wow. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t have much more than that… but thank you.

  • Laura Mc

    This is absolutely beautiful.

  • I’m crying into my lunch right now, reading this. Your niece is going to be an amazing lady.

    • Emily

      crying into my breakfast, here. oh man.

    • Claire

      The five-year old is already one of the brightest, most creative and funny people I’ve ever met. I’m so excited to see them develop into awesome women.

  • That really was a tear-jerker! You had me at, ‘they’re family, we’ll work it out’.

    All the best to Claire, her husband, and those gorgeous kids.

  • KC

    This was such a wonderful story. Even though your first year of marriage wasn’t what you expected, I’m so glad to hear it was wonderful in its own way.

  • oh wow, thanks for the warning! glad I am working from home today, I can cry freely. this was an incredible story, I can’t imagine going through that. hope your nieces are doing ok in their new situation. thank you for sharing this.

  • I remind myself all the time that I can make plans but need to remember that I don’t know what is best for me. We can’t know what the universe’s plan is, we just need to stay open and flexible to what it offers.

    Good luck to you and your husband, you walked through something really challenging…

  • Wow, what a beautiful story. I really wish it had been different and the girls could have stayed. You guys are great people, really. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Ack. Tears. And it’s not even 9 a.m.!

    Thanks for sharing. This was very moving- and I can relate it to things that have happened in our first two years of marriage, so it meant especially a lot to me. Good luck with everything.

  • Kelley

    All the Stone Arch Bridge pictures are making me so happy!

    And thank you so much for your story. How beautiful to open your home and hearts to those little girls.

  • mimi

    “As she clutched my neck, she whispered fiercely, ‘I need you to always remember that I love you.'”

    This broke my heart for you. I hope those girls can always remember that special time they spent with you and that they know you’re there for them.

    When I was 7, my 3 year old cousin came to live with my family (there were already 4 kids between 1 and 7, so I guess my parents figured what’s 1 more?). It started off as temporary, but my parents ended up adopting him a couple years later. There were definitely some struggles, but fast forward almost 25 years and he is just one of us and considers our parents to be his parents. He also has a good relationship with his biological father and his half siblings. Family is the most important thing, no matter how it’s defined.

  • Gorgeous story, brought tears to my eyes.

  • What a fantastic slice of marriage and life you’ve shared. Thank you so much.

  • Kim

    Wow. What a beautiful thing to do for your sister and nieces!

    In light of yesterday’s post: did you find that this experience changed or clarified your previous decision to not have children? Are your reasons for remaining childless any different now?

    • Steph

      I’d also love to know your take on yesterday’s discussion, in light of all you’ve been through with your nieces.

    • Claire

      Oh yesterday’s post was such a good one! It one of those conversations that makes me grateful to be a part of this online community.

      The year we spent living with kids definitely sparked some good conversations on the topic. Of course we’d talked about kids before, but now our conversations are less emphatic and somehow more gentle.

      It certainly changed me personally. I used to think that since I don’t feel the maternal urge, I’d probably make a crappy mother. Now that I’ve spent some time having kids in our life, I think I’d probably be an alright mom and I’m sure Christopher would be an amazing dad. So that fear of screwing up the parenting job is gone (mostly).

      But it hasn’t changed our decicision to remain childless. We both agree that we would absolutely and without hesitation take back our nieces, either temporarily or permanently, if necessary. But we still haven’t felt the urge to go and acquire kids of our own (either biologically or through fostering or adoption). All the reasons we had for wanting to stay childless still apply. We have other goals and experiences we’d rather focus on. We love our twosome life and value other priorities (spontaneity, sleep, etc.) more than having kids, etc.

      We still occasionally wonder whether we’ll regret this choice when we’re old. The thought of growing old alone makes me sad, but not enough to want to spend the next 18+ years of our life raising a human being to ease my old age.

      So we signed up for Big Brother Big Sister, we visit our nieces as often as possible and we just adopted a lovely Shiloh shepherd. And for us, that’s enough. For now. And we’re both willing to revisit the conversation in the future if one of us wakes up with a burning desire to be a parent.

  • Marie

    proof that family means what we say it does. thanks so much for sharing this claire.

    and i hope that visits with the girls and an aero-yoga class are in your future soon.

  • Wow, Claire, you are an inspiration and the two of you deserve all the best in your marriage for being willing to share your love so freely. That you two could create a safe harbor for your nieces when they needed you is extraordinary. And the niece’s last words to you? heartbreakingly beautiful. Thank you for a special boost to a gray day!

  • AnotherCourtney

    Just beautiful! Four months into my own marriage, we still differentiate between “your family” and “my family”. Now I’m wondering how we would face a situation like this, if his adorable, sweet, but quite-a-handful niece ever needed us in this way. You make it sound so easy, but I know such a drastic lifestyle change had to be difficult. You changed the lives of those young girls, for the better. I hope you know that!

    • Claire

      Aww thanks! Moving to the suburbs was actually the hardest lifestyle change for me. I really struggled with it. Having the girls around was surprisingly easy and they were just delightful and fun. I guess little kids are programmed to make you fall in love with them. Which is probably why having them move away felt so devastating, even though we always knew they probably wouldn’t stay forever.

      I think if the situation ever required it, I think you would surprise yourself by discovering you too are stronger than you know.

  • clampers

    What an awesome opportunity! And heartbreaking too…the airport scene…

    Planning an intentional life together: This is mainly what our pastor talked to us about in pre-marriage counseling. She asked us about where we wanted to live, how many kids we wanted to have, etc. Then after we answered, she asked what would happen if we couldn’t have kids or if I got pregnant right now…she asked us what would happen if one of our parents got horribly sick and we needed to move closer to one of them…her main point was, “Have a plan, but also be flexible.”

  • Mary Jane

    AAAAAH this is a timely freaking post. I spent all of yesterday crying on fiance’s chest because we can’t take my niece away from my sister, and it is breaking. my. heart. I hope like hell that she’ll be okay in the end, when she’s a grown-up who can, as you said, decide for herself. And even though I can’t stand the though of the years of sadness stretching before that little baby, the last paragraph of your post reminded me that the day will come when she has the chance to make a happy life for herself. I did it, she can do it, and all I can do in the meantime is be a model of safety and security for her. I don’t know what else to say except thank you. I feel less alone in my sadness around this situation.

    • Claire

      What a difficult situation. I’m wishing the best for everyone involved. Hugs!

  • Great post. Like others, not sure there’s anything I can add, but I am glad you shared.

  • Lakelady

    Love this post! Last night at yoga my teacher said, “let it go, let it flow.” That’s been stuck in my head since she said it and this post is a great reminder that even when life doesn’t go anything like we planned, it can still be wonderful. Thank you.

  • This is just so unbelievably beautiful I don’t even know what to say – other than you two are some amazing people. This warmed my heart immensely on this chilly January day. xoxo

  • So sweet! To take in children when they’re needed shows true strength. To let them go again shows even more. You guys sound like amazing people and I hope you’re enjoying your second year of marriage!

  • Wow. Your story amazes and humbles me, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to let your neices go at the end … the airport moment especially brought tears to my eyes.

  • A gorgeous story. Nearly broke this mama’s heart.

  • You and your husband are so strong, brave, and selfless, in a situation where you easily could have been none of those things. And your niece’s parting words to you were a confirmation of the wonderful foundation that you were able to give them… I honestly don’t know how you cope, but I’m sure that your amazing husband is a big help. Thank you for sharing, from the bottom of my heart.

  • April

    I am completely at a loss for words and sobbing quietly at my office desk right now, so I’ll come back later. But THANK YOU. THANK YOU for sharing.

  • Cassandra

    Tearjerker does not even begin to explain it.

  • Tamara Van Horn


    When I was growing up, I lived with an aunt and uncle until my mom returned to get me. It has been one of the most profound gifts they could have given me, and to this day, I count them as “parents” and am grateful that they stepped in without hesitation. Your nieces will hopefully always have that bond with you.

    Also, the fact that your husband doesn’t separate “your” family from “his?” He’s a keeper. Enjoy your time together, and on behalf of all foundlings everywhere, thank you for being THAT kind of family.

    • Edelweiss

      Just wanted to add as another person coming from an experience of not living with my biological family for years, then was taken back from my biological family and forced to move away and lose contact with the woman that raised me. I’ve always loved her and the foundation she gave me. I moved through life with an internal knowledge that somewhere someone out there was rooting for me.

      Thank you for your year of sacrifice and for all you’ll continue to do. I’m sure there will be more joyful and painful moments ahead, but everyone one of them will be repaid tenfold in helping those girls realize how loved they are.

      • Claire

        Thank you for sharing that. Really. It meant a lot. We hope to always stay very close to our nieces and have talked about ways to make that happen.

  • Lexy

    Wow, it is not nice to do this to a woman getting married in 5 days… my nerves are on high alert and I cried at an Ella Fitzgerald song this morning.

    I have to bookmark this to finish later… a meltdown isn’t an option right now.

    Beautiful. at least up to the airport where I had to quit.

  • This is beautiful . . . how lucky your nieces were to have you & your husband when they needed you most. Now excuse me while I go to find my tissues!

  • I echo everyone else – beautiful story, wonderfully told. But what I *really* want to ask is, can we be friends? You sound like awesome company for an aerial yoga class.

    • Tamara Van Horn

      And I missed this in yesterday’s post, but Claire is in disease prevention…like me! Can we be friends too?

      • Claire

        Yay new friends! I feel like using APW as a friend finding service would fill my life with awesome women. Who doesn’t want that?

  • Class of 1980

    “I learned that planning for an intentional life is important, but it is no guarantee that life will go according to plan. You can’t control the circumstances life throws at you, but working ahead of time to build a solid foundation will keep you standing when the ground is shifting beneath you.”

    You learned everything important. Wow.

  • Wow, such an amazing post! It’s crazy how strong the bonds of family can become through love. I love you therefore I love every extension of you. I hope you two are so proud of yourselves.

  • Moz

    Amazing post. Thank you so much for this.

  • new favorite post ever. i hope you get to have those kids in your lives forever, even from a distance.

  • This is an unbelievably amazing story. And this: “As adults, we get to decide for ourselves. We each get to share our lives with the people we’ve chosen, the people who love us and make us better people and make our journey both easier and more epic” is the best definition of being a grown up that I’ve ever heard.

  • I’m not usually a cryer but fighting back a few tears late at night. Wow, thank you for sharing and I’m wishing you and your amazing partner the best.