When people ask me how many siblings I have, I tend give a tiny shrug and a vague “it's complicated.”
For most people, the question is pretty straightforward. For me, it's a little fuzzy.
I grew up with my three brothers and three stepbrothers, the only girl in a set of seven kids from toddlerhood until I was 16. In all of those years, I would never have hesitated to list all six brothers as my siblings.
With that marriage came three stepsisters. I love all three girls, and I tend to refer to them just as sisters, not stepsisters, when I talk about them.
Beyond my step-siblings on my mom's side, my dad is also remarried with a stepdaughter. Counting all of my siblings from both sides, beginning to end, I have three brothers, three stepbrothers and four stepsisters.
So, yeah. It's complicated.
You see, having a household that was in flux meant I developed a different set of rules for what constituted "family."
While some people might say my three original stepbrothers don't count anymore, I recognize that the bonds formed by growing up with them can't be broken by the divorce of our parents.
And while others might not count the sisters I gained at 20 to be "siblings," I know their value and importance in my family and I love them like I've known them my whole life.
It might not have been "traditional," but I loved growing up in a mixed family.
I can honestly say I wouldn't trade my childhood for a “normal family” upbringing in a million years. I value all of the lessons and attitudes that came with having a family like mine.
Here's why I'm thankful every day for my two parents, three stepparents, three siblings and seven stepsiblings:
1. It's easier for me to love and accept new people.
For most people, family is kind of a closed group. It exists as a finite unit, disrupted only by birth or death. And the term itself becomes incredibly restricted.
For me, family isn't a blood connection or result of marriage. For me, family is a feeling. Family is a brand of unconditional love that I'm free to extend to whomever I want, whenever I want.
Being able to extend that term so easily helps me remain openminded, helps me form stronger bonds and allows me to give more of myself to others — all qualities I'm incredibly proud of.
2. I'm better at dealing with different personality types.
When you're growing up in a family of seven, you learn how best to live with a wide range of personalities.
Being able to read and address people differently and interact with them in a way that's unique to who they are is a skill that's helped me through customer service jobs, interviews, client presentations and pitches for new business.
Having to deal with so many different personalities meant developing a very nuanced awareness of people's words, actions and intentions.
The same way I knew when my brothers were about throw me in the pool before they even made a move, I know when a situation is about to escalate or what a client is thinking when I present them with new ideas.
3. I like to win.
If you asked my friends, they'd probably tell you I'm way too competitive. Growing up vying for attention (and slices of pizza) among so many siblings gave me a crazy drive to win.
While I'll admit it's no fun playing video games with me, that competitiveness has served me incredibly well in my career. It's translated into a goal-oriented nature and assertiveness that has won me almost everything I put my mind to.
That's not to say there aren't kids from more traditional families who sat around the dining room table every Halloween making strategic transactions to maximize their candy haul, but I'm not sure I would have been as cutthroat a business person without my stepsiblings.
All in all, living with a big, fluctuating family prepared me better for the real world than growing up in a less unique environment ever could have.
I may never know what benefits come from a traditional family environment, but I'm really glad I ended up in a family like mine.