Family is what you make it

We all remember getting married, the excitement and joy that goes along with starting a life with that special someone. Without fail someone pipes up, days or even hours, after you say I do and asks “so when are you starting a family?!” I dislike this question on so many levels, but today we’re talking about family so i’ll stay in that lane.

We have a lot of information on the history of families and if we look back we can see how family structure was important. Not only in the importance of name and the status that carried but also the support system that went along with family. Women of past weren't permitted to work, weren’t allowed to own property or even have any rights if a marriage were to dissolve, so keeping your husband happy was your only job. If you were to divorce you needed family to take you in until you can bag yourself a new husband. Family farms or businesses were exactly that, family run. You truly needed your family for basic survival.

Fast forward through some powerful years and now women have rights. We can get an education the same as a man, pursue a career, we have social security and retirement savings and employment outside our family. We no longer need children to work the farm or require our offspring to care for us when we’re old. Our husband isn't our only means of survival. We are all now capable of being self sufficient and I believe that has brought change to how we view 'family'.

Family loyalties used to come above everything else however when people don't need to rely on family to survive, those loyal bonds start to dissolve. People, especially grown children, are able to evaluate relationships based on merit not solely biology. The toxic familial relationships no longer need to be tolerated and those relationships can be substituted for something healthier and gratifying. Appropriate boundaries can be established and in turn relationships can continue because we are able to create a healthy environment for us to exist in. This freedom of choice also allows us to remove the toxic relationships that are a harm to our well being, leaving biological family as an option instead of an obligation.

Humans are social beings. We would not survive, or thrive, without some sort of community or ’family’ surrounding us, but that family no longer has to be blood related. The popularity of the show The Golden Girls in the 80s sparked a movement amongst older women. Currently 1 in 3 Baby Boomers are single and over 50% are women, so the idea of communal living has begun to gain a foothold in how women are spending their later years. Bonnie Moore, the founder of Golden Girls Network, explains the situation as “a little bit like family, a little bit like roommates, a little bit like a sorority house.” The spark of popularity in this sort of arrangement shows that not only do we not need to subject ourselves to toxic family or unhealthy relationships, but we also don’t require a life that involves children just to care for us in our later years. Gloria Steinem is quoted ”We all need people we trust, who understand us and will tell us when we’re messing up, who support us and celebrate when we reach a personal goal. This is our chosen family.

As I think about my own life I remember all the chosen family that had as much, or more, impact in my life than my own blood related family. My pseudo aunts that I had growing up –– Nancy, Sue, Alice, Brenda & Marie. Women who babysat me, picked me up in a pinch, let me cry on their shoulder and pour out my heart when I needed a listening ear. They taught me to bake and attempted to teach me how to knit. I think of my temporary step-dad who generously sacrificed himself and his brand new shirt on my wedding day so the rain wouldn't spoil my hair and makeup, embraced me as his own daughter and displayed a fatherly love I had missed so much. I think of my in-laws, who although related now by law, make me feel as though I have always been a part of their family. Conversely I also think about my blood family. The grandparents I never knew, the aunts who didn't bother, the father who couldn't be counted on. Further proving that blood doesn't make a family and family doesn't have to be blood.

Now this isn't to say my blood family isn't ever there for us. My mother sacrificed a lot for her children, as well as my maternal grandmother. My sister and I, despite our differences, are close friends. Still the comment ’starting a family’, in the end, diminishes all those that do not fit into the stereotypical nuclear family mold. Approximately 80% of households in the U.S. in fact do not fit the “nuclear family” model of a married mom, dad, and children –– my own family being one of them. Many include unmarried partners, close friends, extended relatives and everything in-between. To me the day you get married is the day you and your husbands family starts. The day you move in with your fellow 'Golden Girls' is the day when your family expands to include them. The day you choose to cut off that toxic familial relationship is the day your family changes for the better.

Family is supposed to be a safe haven, a place to land after a hard day and a place we can show up without judgement or criticism. If that place includes your best friend from middle school, that weird roommate you picked up during college, a distant cousin and two adopted cats, well I think you have a pretty good family.

“If the family you came from sucked, make up a new one. Look at all the people there are to choose from."

Lidia Yuknavitch