Every child – young or old – in Haiti knows that the Poto Mitan of the family is the mother. She is the one who holds the family together through thick and thin. Poto Mitan refers to an essential structural support in traditional Haitian construction practices. In construction, buildings come in different sizes and shapes – some requiring more support than others. The same is true for families: different families require more support than others, depending on size or complication of composition. A strong, central support provides a solid foundation for generations to come.
When you speak with any one of the four Balmir sisters for longer than a few minutes, inevitably the subject of their beloved Poto Mitans comes up. Yes, that’s plural: Poto Mitans. As the youngest, Stephanie Balmir-Villedrouin (who’s also the former Minister of Tourism and Creative Industries for Haiti), put it, “I have two moms: Gladys and Albalucia. They are both equally my moms, sharing and caring for our entire family, as well as each other.”
Stephanie’s birthmother, Gladys, and her father, Alix, who had seven children together prior to divorcing when she was four, both remarried: her mother remarried Mehrshad Nazemi; her father remarried Albalucia Sanchez. Stephanie met Albalucia when she was only nine years old. “We had an instant bond. As close as I was – and am – to my mother Gladys, I was immediately – and continue to be – just as close to Albalucia.”
Stephanie’s three sisters, Pascale, Christine and Sabine, concur. “We’re a modern Haitian family,” said Pascale Balmir-Hilaire. “Two moms, two dads, seven kids, 24 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren. We vacation together, we’ve lived together, we talk constantly. We share a dream to all have a big piece of land where there’s enough room for each of us to build a house and live together harmoniously for a long time.”
Gladys, who was born north of Port-au-Prince in Gonaives, Haiti, to Dr. Gerard Dubousquet and Jacqueline Sajous, married young and started her own family with first husband Alix immediately. He was a diplomat and they raised three sons and four daughters in Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Spain. “We lived outside of Haiti for 18 years, always representing our country abroad. The distance from home made us incredibly close as a family: the children were each other’s best friends and play mates,” said Gladys from Santo-Domingo, where she lives these days. “But it was the example that my parents set that primed me to raise my family as one strong, solid unit. I always tell the kids: the keys to life are love, listening and respect. If you can listen lovingly and have a dialogue, you can resolve anything.”
Gladys and Alix set the bar incredibly high for integrating their second spouses into the family’s closeness. Gladys insists that it felt like the most natural thing in the world to her. “Why wouldn’t I be gracious and kind and loving to (Albalucia) who loves the children as much as I do? She’s a wonderful mother, too,” Gladys said.
“Albalucia left everything behind her to marry our dad,” said Christine Balmir Roc. “She was very impactful and she remains very important in my life.” Sabine Balmir Derenoncourt added, “She and (Gladys) shared the responsibility of raising us together, with the same basis for family: love, understanding, compassion, forgiveness and listening.”
Albalucia Sanchez Balmir married Alix in 1992 and moved to Port-au-Prince, site unseen. “Integrating into the Balmir family was like landing a hot-air balloon on a beautiful day, I slowly parachuted in… landing softly and gently,” she said. “There was an immediate connection with the children. Gladys has also been so helpful and loving to me over the years. She introduces me as ‘The mother of her children’ sometimes.”
As for the four daughters, when they became serious about boyfriends and potential husbands, it was natural they chose men who would easily integrate into the family dynamic.
Christine said about her husband, Bertrand Roc, “The entire family knew him since he was 9 years old, so he’s been part of the group for a long time. He’s a perfect fit; all of the spouses seem to naturally fit well into the closeness of the family dynamic.”
All four of the Balmir daughters stressed how important listening was to both Gladys and Albalucia – and it’s something they’ve all tried to implement as mothers, even when the feedback is funny or hard to hear.
When Stephanie became Minister of Tourism in Haiti, she had three young children at home with husband Marcel. “The job required me to travel constantly for five years, so there was a lot that I missed. When I was in Port-au-Prince – whether we were attending Carnaval or inaugurating a new building – I brought the kids with me,” Stephanie said. “I wanted them to see what I was doing so that it might make sense. They understood that I was focused on Haiti’s international image – to the point that they came to me with suggestions. They really understood the work, wanted to help and felt their feedback would be heard.”
In 2010, following the earthquake in Haiti, both Stephanie and Christine moved temporarily with their young children to Sabine’s home in Miami. “We had all three sisters and seven kids in my house,” said Sabine Balmir-Derenoncourt. “My daughter Satine moved into my room, Stephanie and her kids had a room and Christine had a room with her kids. It was a wonderful six months, being that close. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was a very successful test run for our ultimate dream to live on the same property together.”
For now, the Balmir family is spread out – living in Port-au-Prince, Santo Domingo and Miami – but they’re planning their next group adventure soon. “It’s not easy to coordinate that many schedules,” said Gladys. “But we always make it work.”