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Modern Life: Meet the 21st-Century Brady Bunch

Gabe, 12; Santiago Uceda, 45, illustrator; Lori, 14; Jen Bell, 45, marketing agency owner; and
Andres, 8.
Eugene, Oregon

One of Jen’s favorite moments in the week is when her family gets back from a big grocery-shopping trip. “We each take a station—fridge, lazy Susan, kid food—and one person is the ‘runner.’ We’re all cooperating and communicating and it gets done remarkably fast. We feel like a team that has played together for a long time.” In reality, their living situation is freshly minted—only about a year old—but this more funky version of the Brady Brunch is making it work.

Both Jen, who owns a marketing agency, and her partner, Santiago, came into the relationship with their own children. Santiago, who is divorced, brought his sons, Gabe and Andres. Jen, who has never been married, brought her adopted daughter of nearly two years, Lori.

The instant full house took a little bit of time to get settled. Lori, in particular, had some concerns. “For a while it was just the two of us,” says Jen. “When I told her the boys were moving in, she felt betrayed. But now she clearly enjoys having Gabe and Andres around and is great with them.” Santiago is pleasantly surprised by how well they’ve gotten along. “We didn’t expect drama, but we feared there’d be some resistance from Lori when it came to sharing her mom with three new people. Turns out the boys really like her. She’s the cool older kid, they think she’s hilarious, and since she loves being in the spotlight, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

OKCupid was how Santiago and Jen connected. Their first date was at an ArtWalk event where Santiago was one of the artists presenting. When asked about his work, his mind went blank and he was mortified about the impression he’d made. Fortunately she was up for a second date.

“Jen is kind, generous and thoughtful,” says Santiago. “She’s also really honest and direct. I like that about her—she definitely doesn’t keep me guessing. And she can take some really good cheap shots at me sometimes, which makes me laugh. She gets so much joy out of it!”

Jen loves how Santiago is kind and perceptive about how others might be feeling. “He’s also a very committed dad,” she adds. “When marriages break up, it’s typically the mom that has primary custody. But in this case Santiago does, and he’s very attentive to the boys. He also keeps a sense of humor when things are stressful.”

Santiago’s divorce a few years ago hit him hard. “Family is really important to me, so it was difficult not being a unit anymore. I had the boys, but it wasn’t the same, didn’t feel complete,” he shares. “We made the best of it and then Jen came along. I found out the hard way that relationships don’t magically maintain themselves; it takes both people to keep working at it. I learned to be a better communicator and be more honest with my partner.”

“We come from different cultures, but in the end it’s those differences that make us more interesting to each other.” —Santiago

As to whether marriage is in their future, the couple is divided. Jen says she brought the idea up way too early in their relationship. “He was clearly not open to it at the time, which is understandable given that we’d only been dating for a few months. Still, I was kind of hurt by his response, so I vowed not to bring it up again. I’m going to let it be his idea.” For his part, Santiago says that while they have spoken of marriage, he felt that with all the big transitions in a short time span—moving into Jen’s home, the boys switching schools, him quitting his job—they needed a break from major life changes. But, he says, “marriage is a possibility that we’ll revisit in the future.”

Santiago, who was born in Peru, is struck by how different his path and Jen’s have been. “A young Latino immigrant in Southern California and a Caucasian girl born in a small town in Oregon are going to have divergent life experiences that shape the way they see the world and their place in it,” he says. “Everyone struggles in some way. I just think it’s interesting how two people with such diverse backgrounds can come together, be in a relationship, raise kids together—kids who also have had different upbringings—and it all comes together.”

As they continue to find their groove, Jen has adopted the motto of Project Runway cohost Tim Gunn: “ ‘Make it work.’ We’re creative and resourceful and we encourage the kids to be self-reliant. Little hurdles or things not being perfect can’t bog you down.”

What has been the most surprising thing about parenthood for you both?

Jen: Probably how quickly they grow up. I adopted Lori at 11 as a single mom. I wanted her to go to a school that was strong in the arts, so we sold our house, then rented a house two days before school started so she could get in, then sold the house and bought this one. Now she’s 14 and we’re part of a family. In that time, she’s gone from a girl to a strong and powerful young woman. I watched her speak about race at her school assembly the other day. This is a child that didn’t speak in her class in fifth grade. It’s been a whirlwind few years for us.

Santiago: The fact that I can do a decent job at being a parent is surprising to me! I didn’t see myself as the father type before I had kids; I was really focused on trying to make it as an artist. It took me a few years after the kids were born to achieve a better work-life balance. I had a full-time job and was doing illustration on the side. I became a better, more dedicated parent after the divorce, and now that I work from home I get to spend more time with the kids.

What are the biggest hurdles facing a blended family?

Jen: Creating consistent rules for the kids, mostly around chores and screens. Lori, being the oldest, had more chores around the house than the boys. Now we try to keep that even. Gabe and Lori, who attend middle school together, have struggled with what to call our family. What is Gabe to Lori and vice versa? They aren’t step-siblings, and “he lives at my house,” as Lori has described Gabe, makes it sound like we’re all just roommates.

Santiago: Having consistent rules has been the biggest challenge. When we first moved in together, we were parenting separately. Now we’re a family unit.

Have you faced any challenges as a multiethnic family? If so, how do you handle them?

Jen: Lori was concerned when we were blending families that she would feel like an outsider, being the “only African American one.” I don’t think that occurs to her anymore, but we do need to do more to connect her to her black heritage. Eugene is a very white town, but there are opportunities to do that if we seek them out. Lori is also fluent in Spanish (something that delights Santiago’s mom), so I’ve encouraged her to speak Spanish with Santiago so we can all learn.

Santiago: I also need to do a better job at helping the boys connect with their Peruvian heritage. Like Jen said, we live in a city that is 85% Caucasian. Gabe identifies with this Peruvian heritage, and he gets more exposure to it when we visit my parents in California. I would like for us to visit Peru at some point. Gabe has been asking to go to Machu Picchu. Andres is only 8, so I don’t know how aware he is of race and culture.

“Jen encouraged me to quit my job and become a full-time freelance illustrator, which had been a dream of mine. She’s been very supportive and I am very grateful for that. I don’t have to feel guilty about being able to stay home and draw pictures for a living.” —Santiago

Santiago, you say that your family left Peru because of the terrible economy and terrorism, and that Jen had a privileged upbringing. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

Jen: I don’t think that’s something I would’ve brought up, but I think it’s something more likely to be noticed by those raised with less. So it’s interesting to me that Santiago mentioned it. My family growing up was financially comfortable. We went on vacations and had what we needed. But my parents are frugal, and I am too. I always had jobs in high school and college—food service, housekeeping, babysitting—and even before that picking strawberries and peaches. And while frugality isn’t something Santiago grew up with, we’re a good balance for each other. He’s quicker to suggest we do something like go out, but I do the grocery shopping and make sure we’re spending wisely. And I often pick something up for everyone to try. We call these our “taste tests.” I think it’s good for kids to get used to trying things, and it’s fun to talk about what we thought of the food.

Santiago: My parents decided to come to the United States after my dad lost his job. He had been working at the same place for most of his adult life and couldn’t find a new job. We left Peru in the mid-’80s, when there was armed conflict between the Peruvian government and communist terrorist organizations [Shining Path]. Nearly 70,000 people died because of the internal conflict that lasted close to 20 years. My parents wanted us to go to college and didn’t see much of a future in a country that wasn’t very stable. I have mixed feelings about the idea of privilege; it can feel like an indictment. Jen’s had to work hard to get to where she is. We both have.

What do the kids do after school? Are they involved in lots of extracurricular activities?

Jen: Gabe is pretty much always in sports or going to a friend’s house. We chose a walkable/bikeable area of Eugene (a very bike-friendly town) so the kids could be independent. Lori does volleyball and track and has acted in some theater productions for kids in town. She also does yearbook and is occasionally involved in a leadership activity at school—mentoring younger kids or putting together a school assembly. Andres takes an art class and has played baseball. He’s interested in learning piano, so we’ll start him in lessons soon.

What’s your favorite part of the day?

Santiago: I have two favorite parts. The first is when everyone leaves for work and school in the morning and I get to make art in the studio and listen to music and podcasts (introvert heaven!). My other favorite part is when everyone is home after school and work, because the house feels full and more alive.

Jen: When everyone’s home and I’m cooking dinner. Preferably the kids are doing something relatively quiet. I lived alone for years, and I like feeling a part of something. But part of me also longs for some alone time.

What is your biggest wish for your kids?

Santiago: I want the kids to find their passion and pursue their dreams.

Jen: I want them to be happy and self-sufficient. If you have that, what more do you need?