Can’t We Build A Better Kind Of Family?
Sometimes, distance from your family of origin is what’s best — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ache.
Sometimes, life’s most acute cuts aren’t the obvious ones. Last night, I drove down my street at dusk, watching the slow fall of the day, the way the sunset colors leached into navy, like melting sherbet. My next door neighbor, a semi-retired woman in her early sixties, was having a family party. Cars lined the street and packed into the small driveway that she’d just repaired that spring. Her kids and their spouses streamed in through the open front door with lidded Pyrex containers full of potato salad or berry trifles, or whatever they’d cooked. Grandkids were chasing the terrier outside, crossing into our lawn, then whipping back into my neighbor’s yard, squeezing their bodies into the crack in the gate. I smelled barbecue. I heard laughter. Watching the unfolding scene, I felt a shameful little ache inside of myself.
Our neighbor lives on the same block as most of her large, boisterous family — not only kids and grandkids, but her own parents, aunts, and uncles. She’d moved from the South specifically to be closer to them all after her husband passed, and told me how delighted she was to host holiday gatherings. They managed to drop by all the time, aside from the large events. I’d see the Little Tykes coupe parked in front of her garage, smell the faint richness of baking brownies, and I’d know that the grandkids were over again. There seemed to be no clear boundary between their homes; relatives just strolled in and out, with the kind of freedom born from years of shared intimacy. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that sort of comfort.
That night, our home felt too quiet. Just the three of us: me, my husband, and my daughter. We are a happy family, though we aren’t a large one. Mostly, we have our own rituals and games — secret clubs for just our trio. We tell inside jokes and go on adventures to water parks and hiking trails. I like the order of our world. But once in awhile, I think: Wouldn’t it be nice to have an extended family we actually wanted to see?
Families of origins are complicated things, and there’s still not enough written about the kind of entrapment and trauma people have experienced at the hands of those who are supposed to love you. Adults will separate from grown parents for complex reasons of their own, though few will openly admit to these reasons, for fear of stigma. We put up boundaries to protect ourselves, and our children. These are acts of courage, but in our society, where the nuclear family still feels more like an edict than one of many alternatives, separating from your family of origin still feels like something to be ashamed of. As if there is something unnatural about how you relate to others. After all, what sociopath can’t get on with their own family? It turns out: many, many of us out there, living in secret embarrassment and loneliness.
I grew up with a family who’d often tell me that blood was thicker than water, that old adage meant to erase a multitude of sins. Despite the tension and downright resentment we harbored, we were told never to speak of our pain to others — not to friends, not to teachers, not to therapists. All the kinds of coercion that occur when we tell each other that family is the end-all and be-all of relationships. It’s a narrowing of our world that places undue dependence on those who may not actually make us feel safe at all.
My husband grew up in a family that shuffled unwanted conversations under the rug, averting their eyes to individual pain if it came at any cost to the collective goodwill. Difference was not tolerated in either of our households. When my daughter was born, all perfect folds and wide eyes and seeking lips, I vowed to value the family I created with my husband and her above either of our families of origins. I told myself that I would protect my daughter’s individuality, even if it meant shunning the collective.
And so, boundaries often ignored and discussions sidestepped, we moved away from my husband’s family, both literally and figuratively. The expectation was that we would drive or fly to every event, big or small — first communions, Sunday dinners, anniversaries, holidays — where we usually felt over-talked and exhausted, especially my young daughter. Sometimes, we chose to stay at home, which resulted in subtle digs, like, “It hurts us that you don’t value family.”
I wanted to explain that we did value family. It’s just that our trio would take precedence over the demands of the 30-odd people who attended these events. When we did attend an event, we’d hear the whispers, “Oh, they’re here?” which inevitably made us feel like pariahs, punished because we did not behave in exactly the expected manner.
I told myself we could create a family of our own. After all, I am much closer to my friends than my relatives. They know my secrets and dreams. When our family got sick last fall, my friends dropped food on our doorsteps. They sent workbooks and toys for my daughter. None of my husband’s siblings checked in on us through convalescence or afterwards. These friends remember anniversaries and birthdays. They send cards for the first day of school. They visit us as often as we visit them, understanding that relationships are a balance of give and take. Of listening and seeing. We called these people our chosen family, bestowing titles such as “auntie” and “uncle” to cement the relationship.
Over the past couple of years, though, it felt like many of us shuffled inward, both due to isolation practices as well as our own anxieties. We traveled less. It was about day-to-day survival for many. And when your friends don’t live close by, it’s natural for some fizzling of relationships. A daily text may become a weekly one; then longer. You might forget to ask about the little things, like a friend’s child’s wiggly tooth, or their husband’s new promotion. Everyone means well; but there’s no structure in place to maintain friendships, the way there is for families who have milestones where they are expected to gather (birthdays and holidays).
Many of us are left feeling unrooted. It’s an ache that my friends and I have discussed — we are unwelcome or uncomfortable in our families of origin, yet also increasingly disconnected from our friend groups, especially those that do have stable relationships with their families. We’re the ghosts roaming around on holidays; the ones whose homes are never quite as full as their neighbors’. Mostly, that’s okay. I love our small family, and I love our friends, even if we aren’t always able to connect in the ways we want. The exchange isn’t a perfect one, but it’s one I’m willing to uphold so that we can be the truest versions of ourselves in our relationships.
What I would want for myself and others in my position is some language, some community, around this feeling of rootlessness. After all, many of us desire the benefits of healthy family structures — unconditional regard, history, comfort — even if they seem impossible within our specific families of origin. They tell us that “family is everything,” and I don’t disagree. But let’s expand our definitions of family. It’s about time.
When I think about my daughter and what she might want for her future, I hope she will want to spend some of her time with us after she leaves the home, even as she forms a family unit of her own. I know I’d love to open my house up to her and whoever she chooses to bring with her, like my neighbor does. But I also understand this is neither a guarantee nor a reasonable expectation. Despite my safeguards, I can’t foresee the ways we might fail our child, even accidentally. I can pledge to listen and try my hardest to mend anything we’ve broken, but it might not be enough.
And I hope if we can’t give her what she needs in terms of relationships, though we will try our damndest to evolve enough to do so, that she will be able to find what she needs in those who can commit to loving her in the way she deserves. The thing I want to teach her about families — chosen or otherwise — is that you can’t necessarily reshuffle your hand. But maybe you can find a new way to play with what you’ve been given.