Children’s drawings on the refrigerator and piles of laundry in the hall. Dirty shoes. Toy trucks smashing together. Barbie shoes in the carpet. Dinner, not yet done. Piles of mail on the kitchen counter. A calendar, full of what is yet to come.
I would wager many people, when thinking of a family, think of one father, one mother, and their child(ren). This is the arrangement of people that our economic system is set up to encourage and the one that the majority of our laws protect. But family, defined by even the most conservative thinkers, is a mutable category. The children of one household are expected to grow up and establish a household of their own, relegating their previous caretakers to the outskirts. Those parental figures who were once primary, the heads of the household, become extended family.
Perhaps, then, we can define family as the people in a household who are related to each other by blood or legal ties. And that does cover most arrangements: some children live with one blood parent and a step parent, and perhaps, step-siblings as well. Some households contain multiple generations under one roof. Some children split their time between multiple households. Some parents are unmarried. Some households are headed by one adult. Some parents are the same gender. Some children are adopted. And some are a combination of a few or all of the above. There has been cultural pushback against many of these arrangements, but our laws are beginning to reflect the variety of ways that people say to each other: I will take care of you. And that is progress, if you believe our laws are meant to protect the relationships in which people share resources and intention. Or maybe that is disastrous, if you believe our laws are meant to reflect one group’s cultural ideal of those relationships and not multiple groups’ reality.
My own reality: one father, one mother, and one sister in one household for 18 years. Then, I left for college, and my sister too, and shortly thereafter the arrangement changed: one mother in one household, one father in the other. Time passed. Then: one father with a new spouse in one household, with sometimes step siblings too, and one mother with a new spouse in another household, with sometimes step siblings too. Then, I married. Then, I divorced. Then my sister created a household with her boyfriend, and they became domestically partnered, although unmarried. And the next chapter has come as a surprise: I and my boyfriend are going to live for a time in the home that my mother and her spouse have created for themselves, and we will be multiple generations under one roof again, a collective of individuals bound by different ties: two married, two not, two blood related, two not.
I frequently think about family, and what family is, because the boundaries of my own family and my household are constantly shifting, and I know few people for whom that is not also their reality. For years I have lived in households made of grown adults—friends, housemates—who have had to pool their resources to afford to live in the city in which they are employed. For many, their blood relations are far away, unwelcoming, or passed on from this world. And this makes me consider the other complications of family—that those who we call family are often not safe havens, people of refuge, or sources of sustainment. In many families, blood relations are more dangerous than strangers. Physical and psychological abuse, addiction and its attendant hurts, neglect, rape, molestation, murder—these are among the crimes between intimates. Too: control, manipulation, brain-washing. I have held the hands of friends who have recounted being repeatedly raped by family members, and invariably, the disbelief of other loved ones follows, magnifying their pain. I have listened as other friends have confessed the powerlessness they felt as children watching their parents succumb to addiction or anger. I have hugged the survivors of abuse at the hands of their caretakers or lovers and hoped to convince them it was never, ever, their fault. And I have shared beers with friends whose families rejected them, judged them, would not accept them, for who they are.
I need, desperately, a definition of family that can work for these friends as well. But such relations are always qualified—chosen family, they are called—that network of cohorts and friendships built to fill in the gaps left by the lack of or harm from those familial relationships so matter-of-factly depended upon by others. I know from my friends’ stories that it isn’t easy, even when the friendships are strong, to move through this world without the memory of ever having felt protected or safe, or to live with the rejection of the people you once trusted most. There is no good replacement for the love that was needed in childhood and was not given. Those that manage despite these and other harms are invisible heroes among us, marshaling the emotional fortitude to survive from some private well within. They build their families from scratch, using hope and self-love to start new legacies. I don’t know how they do it, really, but they do.
Since my divorce, I have often wondered who my immediate family really is—my family of origin, or myself, alone, but with such dear friends? Like in many other areas of my life, the dichotomy doesn’t help. The answer for me is closer to both. I am learning that family need not be defined or recognized by others to provide refuge. It exists between the souls that stand together through this life, and it is built by those who shelter us, protect us, and care. Family may mean something definite to some people, with rigid roles and clear boundaries, but mine is more tangled. I have friends that are family and family that are not friends. I don’t think that’s unusual, really, but it can certainly be confusing. I guess the point is the care—all the rest is just fakery and pretend.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured or are forthcoming in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven, where she is a monthly columnist. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Read All Columns by Laura Jean Moore
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- Whiteness, A Study
- New York
- American Dreams
- Body Talk
- Habits, Simple and Austere
- On Love