Editor’s note: This is part six of a portrait series highlighting ordinary families in the community. Earlier this year, Sheridan Press photojournalist Justin Sheely asked local families several questions: How has having children for the first time changed their lives? What are the challenges they face? What advice would they offer to new parents or those about to have their world changed forever?
SHERIDAN — Brandi Jo King’s family resembles a patchwork quilt — the bonds between the pieces are strong and beautiful, but each member is unique.
King, divorced, has an independent teenage daughter who dresses in black leather and wears thick black eyeliner, an adopted 4-year-old African American girl, a 10-year-old energetic son and a boyfriend she met online.
King and her children, Shelby, 18, Jaxon, 10, and Kaja, 4, moved from Billings, Montana, to Ranchester after she met Jesse Shanor through an online dating site. Shanor shares custody of his daughter, who lives with her mother out of town.
King divorced the father of her two biological children in 2013.
In 2006, King was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia — a disorder that causes fatigue and arthritis-like chronic pain. That is when her daughter, Shelby, who was 8 years old at the time, began to take on more duties.
When King experienced strong pain, Shelby would help out around the house and play with her brother. She learned to prepare basic meals, which she would bring to her mother in bed.
“I remember only being able to make ramen noodles at the time,” Shelby said.
Shelby assumed the role of guardian for her brother and later her adopted sister. She’s especially close to Kaja, who was adopted at birth in March 2012, a year before King’s divorce.
“I would not change my family for anything,” Shelby said.
When Kaja has trouble going to sleep, Shelby holds her and sings. Kaja does not allow anyone else to sing her to sleep.
“There is definitely a bond between [us],” Shelby said.
Shelby is very protective of her little sister and even worries about roughhousing when Jaxon plays with her. But Jaxon also knows when to protect his little sister.
“He is a good big brother,” King said of her son.
She noted one instance that Jaxon walked Kaja to play on the playground at the nearby elementary school.
When Jaxon returned home he told King he was upset at some kids at the playground who picked on his sister.
“He told me they were making fun of her because she was adopted,” King said. “He protected her and talked to her and brought her home.”
King knew from the beginning that she would have to discuss racial issues with Kaja; what surprised her was how soon her daughter began to ask questions about why she looks different from the rest of her family.
“She would say things like ‘I wish I was white like you,’” King said. “She would also say, ‘I’m not pretty.’”
It was hard for King to hear those things and also unexpected from a 4 year old. But King and Shelby made it a priority to reinforce to Kaja how beautiful she is.
Kaja also began asking about what the term “adopted” means. King hasn’t shied away from explaining the process, but still strives to keep the conversation age appropriate.
The family members are big believers in maintaining honesty and openness in their home.
“I respect [my kids] the same way I want them to respect me,” King said.
King’s openness and respect has led to a strong bond with her oldest daughter. Shelby describes her mom as her best friend and says that she feels like she can go to her mother with any question or issue at any time.
“Were there rough patches? Yeah, but there’s always going to be rough patches,” Shelby said.
But, she added, there are less of those now as they learn more about each other and as Shelby matures.
In terms of advice King would offer to new parents, she kept it simple.
“You need to let your kids be who they are and accept them,” King said.
King emphasized that if a parent finds the strengths, qualities and desires or their children and nurture them, then it’s a win for everyone.
Some parents have told King that they would never allow their daughters to dress in all black like Shelby. But, King says, they just don’t understand Shelby.
“My daughter is the most amazing and strong person — a role model of mine,” King boasted.
Shelby, who grew up as a parent of sorts, offered her own advice: Don’t let finances be the biggest issue. She said that you don’t need to give your children things to buy affection — just spend time with them.
“Time is something money can’t buy,” she said.
To recommend a family to be highlighted for this project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.