The Families We Choose
My new novel has much to say about the importance of families and their evolving nature. I believe that discussions about family structure are particularly relevant in a country such as ours where we welcome newcomers. I hope the novel encourages people to think about family. The following piece summarizes some of my thoughts on the subject.
In my family, I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, an aunt, a cousin and likely other honorifics I have neglected to mention. Part of how the world sees me is in relation to my family, a large grouping of people that I am related to not only by blood, but also by affinity and by choice. Among the most beloved members of my family are those individuals with whom I share a deep bond. For instance: my husband’s cousin’s wife’s daughters from her first marriage are two incredibly brilliant people whom I adore. And for the purposes of general introductions, as well as in every way that really matters, they are my ‘cousins’ and they are my family.
The families we choose in life say something significant about the nature of our evolving society and about how we adapt to domestic change. My husband was an only child. He has had difficulty over the years, understanding the sometimes fractious dynamic between me and my siblings. Even now, we still exasperate one another upon occasion. Some time ago, after a particularly worrying issue had been resolved, my husband realized that after all of our history together, my siblings were now his siblings also – like it or not. They had become his family and there was no escaping the connection.
As social creatures, it is important for us to find meaningful, authentic connections with other people. This is more challenging for those individuals who do not come from loving and supportive families, or who have left their extended family groupings to emigrate or move outside of the community where their relatives are centred. I remember longing for a set of grandparents when I was a child. My real Oma and Opa lived in another country and I knew from my friends that their grandparents spoiled and indulged them. The love and support offered by grandparents took on an almost mythical role as I watched my friends enjoy their extended families. My parents were newcomers and did not have the benefit of additional family members close by to rely upon. Fortunately, we lived in a community-minded neighbourhood and the other families on our street were kind and welcoming, often helping us out and caring for us in the practical ways that mattered. I always knew that, “if something ever happened,” I could approach the Frys or the Blacks or the Schroeders, and that I would be safely cared for.
When writing about The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Pico Iyer points out that “four semi-posthumous beings told us we could define ourselves in new ways and step into a different kind of community,” (Pico Iyer Journeys, Imagining www. Imagining Canada – Pico Iyer Journeys , as accessed April 10, 2021). He is referring to four of the main characters in the novel: Hana the American nurse; Kip the Indian bomb-defuser; Caravaggio the Canadian thief; and Almasy the English map-maker. Although each of these colourful characters has come from widely different socio-cultural, political and geographic circumstances, together, they have formed bonds that enable their shared survival. In Iyer’s thesis, he argues that these disparate individuals have come together, irrespective of their differences, and made connections that created a distinct community of their choosing. Iyer posits that in a country such as ours, the coming together of strangers to form new social groupings is a logical extension of our need to belong.
I worked for a time as an educator in a community that was rife with street gangs. These were violent associations with strict codes of behaviour and honour. Among one of many rituals employed was that of being “beaten in.” New candidate members to the group had to endure an initiation ritual that involved being attacked and brutalized by three or four other members. I inadvertently witnessed such an attack once, involving three large teens beating a fourteen-year-old boy with a length of pipe, kicking him repeatedly, and slashing his arm with a knife. Why someone would subject themselves to such a beating was not something I initially understood. While there may indeed be an economic component to gang membership, the research is clear that a sense of acceptance, a feeling of family and belonging are among the decisive and driving forces for such connections. The phenomena of gang membership echoes, if you will, the impulse for all of us to choose family.
Friend groups are often reflective of connections we form that are akin to a chosen family. And our friends can come from any aspect of our lives – from schools we attend together, from work places, religious communities, neighbourhoods, clubs or places where we share interests such as the yoga studio or youth group or library board. The bonds we form with our friends can sometimes last a lifetime, enriching our lives with intimacy, support, companionship, and love. Finding such people, and forming our own personal clans, if you will, can supplement or replace lost or inaccessible family connections.
The nature of family is elusive. At its best, it is loving, supportive, respectful, generous, safe, loyal, and united. At its worst, it is dysfunctional, hurtful and damaging. I suspect that most families fall somewhere in between those two markers. For individuals who feel rejected or hurt by family, for whatever reason (and there may be many), the need to choose family – and to find those who will succour and care for them – becomes even more important. In my work as an educator, I often observed that 2SLGBTQIA+ youth were comfortable sharing their personal orientations with friends and classmates but were reluctant to share the same information with their families. “Coming out” often included facing the fear of disappointment and rejection from their immediate families. Mental health risk factors increase at frightening levels when young people do not have unconditional support from family members. Helping those young people find nurturing support networks when their families were unable, or unwilling, to be supportive became a real priority for our school support teams.
In my experience, families are messy, whether they are based upon blood connections or embrace chosen relationships. Nevertheless, the need for what they may provide seems to be inherent in all of us, and extends far beyond the tidy categories of who should or should not be included. Our need to belong, and those lasting bonds of intimacy and shared history, help to shape our lives. Whatever their initial qualifications, the members of the family units we choose are often among the most lasting and the most significant.
Allen, Dr. Kelly-Ann and Professor Peggy Kern, “The Importance of Belonging Across Life: A developmental perspective of our need to belong,” Psychology Today, June 20, 2019, (The Importance of Belonging Across Life | Psychology Today, as accessed 2021-05-02).
Iyer, Pico, “Imagining Canada,” in Pico Iyer Journeys (Imagining Canada – Pico Iyer Journeys) , as accessed April 10, 2021).
Neighmond, Patti, “Home But Not Safe, Some LGBTQ Young People Face Rejection From Families in Lockdown,” in npr, broadcast and posted May 17, 2020 (For Some LGBTQ College Students, Sheltering At Home With Family Can Be Traumatic : Shots – Health News : NPR), as accessed 2021-05-03.
Taylor, Linda and The Center by the Center for MH in Schools & Student Learning Supports (updated 2018), “Youth Gangs and Schools,” School Mental Health Project, Department of Psychology, UCLA, (G:\packets backup\Special Reports & Center Briefs\F – Center Briefs\Policy Analysis Briefs\Youth gangs & Schools.wpd (ucla.edu), as accessed 2021-05-03.