Redefining Family

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Jane Howard

As an only child, who lost both of my parents by the time I was 25, I have long struggled with a sense that I struck out big time on the family lottery. By that age most of my family members were deceased or unavailable. I never met my father’s parents. They were gone before I was born, as was my maternal grandfather. The only grandparent I knew lived far away during my childhood and then appeared when I was a spiteful teen. We were never close.

There were no family reunions or holiday gatherings to shore up my sense of heritage or clan and the few aunts and uncles that survived were not part of my life. And so, I entered adulthood feeling alone.

I was often sad about this and saw myself a victim, particularly at the holidays or when others spoke of family get-togethers. I imagined those folks spending summers camping and boating together and winters tucked snug in their homes telling stories around the fire and sipping cocoa.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize that these pretty ideas about other people’s families were probably unrealistic. I learned that it is rarely effective to compare the surface of other’s lives to the brutal clarity with which we see our own situation. I also realized that even though I didn’t have a family to call my own, it was possible to create one.

Some people call these creations “families of the heart”, or their “tribe” or “peeps” or perhaps, “a sister or brother from another mother”. These are people who feel like family even though we are not biologically related to them. They are people who are there for us and who fill some of the roles that a healthy biological family might.

My own mother created some of this. She found an older woman in our small town who sewed gorgeous ballet costumes for me and often invited us into her pink and white storybook cottage. Her home was filled with dainty figurines and I spent hours looking at them while she and my mother talked. My mom also found a family of untamed children for me to run amuck with. Karen, the oldest girl in this family, became a life-long friend and one of the few people still living who shares memories of jumping out of a hay loft into piles of sweet, new hay, or the precarious climb up the steep, muddy cliff to the rope swing at our swimming hole. She also remembers how Della’s Variety Store, where we went to by candy and prizes for the “carnivals” we were always planning, looked when it was filled with a thick haze of Della’s cigarette smoke. I am thankful there is someone who knows that skinned-knee-kid part of me.

But it wasn’t until I was grown that I began adding to my family of the heart myself. The first to sign on is a woman I met in group therapy. We were like oil and water at first. She, angry and adamant about her views, me, scared and judgmental. But through the deep work of healing together, we bonded. These days, 25 years later, we call ourselves sisters and she says she feels closer to me than to her own far-flung siblings. If I was hurt or in trouble, Cathy is one of the first people I would call. She has moved me…several times. I have cleaned out her drawers and painted her kitchen. We have cried over our kids and husbands and over the pace of life and how it all keeps slipping away. I was the one who told her she was being unreasonable in her marriage, and she confronted me when I needed to let go of one of my kids. We are truly family.

Then there is my congregation of moms. For the last ten years I have belonged to a women’s writing group in which I am the youngest member. It is made up of a contingent of powerful, sensitive, talented and engaged women, most of whom are old enough to have given birth to me. We sit around a big dining room table every week and share, not only our writing, but our lives, and when I’m with them I feel my deep need for the maternal satisfied.

As you can probably tell, I believe we can create family. If the biological clan we have been given is absent or toxic, it is possible to still have the sense of belonging and support that most of us want and need by building a family from the relationships in our lives that are healthy and deep.

Doing this involves a shift in consciousness. We have to let go of our preconceived notions about what “should” be and imagine what “could” be. We must be willing to grieve the void and perhaps the pain that our bio-family has left us with, and then become open to the possibility of a rich and satisfying new family of our own design. Richard Bach says it best, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”

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