The old saying, as I’m sure you’re aware, goes that ‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.’
Actually, depending on your definition of Family, I would say that you can. And that you should.
Rather than subscribing to the age-old bloodline tradition that dogs the majority of civilised societies, there is also a younger, more forward-thinking movement – almost Buddhist-sounding in its open-mindedness (and I say that as a Norse pagan!) – that will allow you to see those without blood or marital ties as your family as much as those to whom you are attached through the random dictation of biology. I’ve been something of a subscriber to this view for a long while now. However, I always saw myself as someone for whom family was very important: therefore I submit myself as something of an example.
Living many miles away from my family, I put a lot of effort into making sure I had some money set aside in order to go and visit my next of kin. Despite a low income, no personal means of travel and scant accommodation when there, I felt it worth it. I loved my family. It mattered very little to me that my dad was always very quiet and usually having a drink; that my step-mother ruled the roost; and my younger sisters often had arrangements across my visiting – I understood it. And though it smarted a little, I overlooked the fact the courtesy was never returned to me. I was never visited in my new city of residence by them. It took a lot, I know, for my step-mother to drop my sister off to spend a single weekend with me, once. The underlying feeling was that it had been my choice to follow a career path that took me away from my home town, and therefore my responsibility to keep in touch with the rest of the family. Why should they put themselves out, when I could just as easily have stayed at home and gotten a regular job?
Fast forward to today. More than ten years after I originally left the nest, I am still waiting for a family visit. My father sends me emails instead of cards on my birthday. My step-mother communicates through my fiance, usually to cuss me out, which my fiance lovingly paraphrases to me in order to protect my sanity. I haven’t seen my half-sisters in about a year. And to top it all off, my grandparents – the people that I thought I was safe to visit and stay in touch with so long as I didn’t mention anyone else and upset them in their old age – have now made it clear they’d rather not have anything to do with me so long as I am at odds with daughter-in-law, my step mother. All this lovingly churned up and decorated with choice words from my aunt who we’ve since realised is not a mediator that will help smooth things out between parties. Rather she’s someone who left it too late to sustain a career she liked, get married and have kids and instead spends her time stirring the proverbial pot of you-know-what in order to perpetuate attention in her direction while simultaneously making others look bad around her.
So I made the decision that it was time to choose my family. People who could not take joy and pride in my successes – people who, I started to realise a while ago, didn’t have any interest or even any idea what I was doing – and who were unwilling to extend the much-coveted family approval unto me, were not worthy of my deeming with such a title as Family. A horrendous and heart-wrenching decision that could not be taken lightly and, for those young enough to not realise what they do or how it affects others, not to be thought of as permanent. But at least for one’s own peace of mind, some doors do need to be shut and locked. Because all that happens when you open it, when you expect love and community, is you get slapped repeatedly in the face. Opening such a door every now and again does not lead to a healthy feeling of Family. It leaves one broken, sad and wondering if you got the right ******* door in the first place.
However, all is not lost. When you take the view that Family will always find you if you embrace love and people and their differences, it has a way of making itself known. Instead of comparing dresses with my younger sisters for their bridesmaids outfits, I find myself on the phone to one of my dearest friends, coaching her through big changes in her life that I know all too well and know can be tough on the human spirit. Myself and my future mother-in-law – who soon SHALL be legal family – swap battle scar stories as well as gluten-free recipes. And my Brother From Another Mother talks me down when the imminent stress of moving house gets too much for me to feel I can take.
Family really is who you choose it to be.
I used to love telling people that I was from a large family. That inviting my family alone would give us at least 50 people on our wedding invitation list. But I realise as I carry on that less, rather, is more. More stable, more manageable and oftentimes more loving. How often, for example, have you done something for a friend that you’ve never done for a family member? I bet there’s at least a couple of things you went out of your way to do for them, that you’d never do for family. That’s ok. That’s not you being a bad person. That’s you adding to your family.
Also, I submit the example of My Other Dad, as I call him, Paul. My Dad is my dad, and always will be, and I love him. But Paul earned his title of My Other Dad. He was one of my first friends when I moved to London. We performed musically together, and he took my hard direction when I was a perfectionist probably giving him an overly hard time. When my other aunt kicked me out of her house (yes, I don’t have much luck with aunts), he was the first person there, to pick me up and help me take my stuff to the crappy little room I could just about afford on the other side of town in his car. I would have been lost without him. But his actions were the actions of someone who is working hard for someone’s loyalty and friendship, not someone who was looking for reward, or to get something out of his dealings. He never did – he just wanted to be there. So he earned the right for me to refer to him as a member of my family.
From the past few years of being separated from those whose name I used to share, I have learned much. About people. About myself. About family. I’ve learnt a lot about stepping back and seeing situations for what they are. Letting people make their mistakes and giving them room to apologise and for you to make amends between you. Or for them to cover it up and dig themselves deeper with you. You’re not responsible for the actions of those who are your family, so don’t beat yourself if you find you’re actually related to people who you might even consider jerks. Or rednecks. Or losers. It’s okay. They’re not you. Its just your family. And you can’t choose ’em.
You can define who you are by who you choose to surround yourself with now. So even if you have a beautiful family waiting for you at home or a good few miles away, embellish that – have more people in your circle you consider family. Who you’d go that extra mile for, because you platonically think they’re amazing and just want them to be happy. That’s family. Envelope yourself in people who are so proud of you, and who you are genuinely happy for every time they achieve something – even if it’s something you wanted for yourself. Be happy for them: that’s what families do.
So choose a beautiful family and whoever you choose, for whatever reason, find the joy, the laughter, the pride and the happiness within your family. Cuz that’s what families do.