Recently, I made a post to Facebook about family and what defines that term. A response to that post made me think about what being a family actually means. I am not alone in my contemplation. The question of who can claim the rights and privilege of relation has been considered not only by individuals seeking to enter into affairs of the heart, contracts defined by legal or religious terms, custody agreements, financial institutions, and even state and federal government.
In terms of history, the term family (from the Latin familia) designated a particular tie through genetic bloodlines that pertained to parentage and relatedness of birth. I suspect this came in handy in terms of evolution when humans pretty much existed in isolated clumps of social interaction and minimal population. The family group identified individuals that belonged to the same genetic line. When you think about the purpose of evolution, mutation and recombination of genetic material to encourage the improvement of the species would be significantly helped by knowing who might share too much DNA to make a blending beneficial to the resultant offspring. As we know from modern science, the mating of individuals who share too close a profile allows for recessive genetic traits to manifest more often. For some of the more maladaptive traits, this does not work out so well for the continued vigor of the species. The ancient Egyptians, for all their seemingly advanced knowledge, never quite got that point (as evidenced by the pharaonic practice of married siblings… if you can’t keep it in the pants, keep it in the family). Defining the family as those of the same bloodlines served its purpose by indicating appropriate people to reproduce with or not as the case may be. This also led to ideas of good and bad blood, or even pure and not so pure lines.
As populations expanded, travel increased, cultures spread across geography, and generations were fruitful and multiplied. Interaction and interbreeding brought humanity new genetic material, new practices, new traditions, and new knowledge. Family grew to be “extended” and associated constellation and extended family groups became clans or tribes. So the spread of humanity across the span of continents and the globe extended to bring various groups together into different municipal and societal organizations for safety, convenience, and commerce. Unfortunately, the closeness of interaction paired with some questionable hygiene practices made a playground for various diseases that at various points in time decimated populations to near extinction. In fact, whole communities and towns were erased from existence by such epidemics as the Black Death. Events led to distrust and fear which set back the intermingling a bit. People pulled back into the idea of loyalty to the blood. Trust only within your own genetic clan, tribe, or family.
But that time is past. The population continued to recover and expand. People eased up on the “stick with your own kind” crap. Well, sorta; if we ignore all the racism, sexism, and all the other ‘isms that divide people from each other. The nostalgic days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when there were rife with images of family time around hearth or table, brought the warmth of affection and family connection to the standard that would lead the charge against the evils of materialism and other distractions of the secular world. All of these heartwarming sentiments easily whitewashing the poverty and hardship of the majority of working and lower classes and painting a much prettier picture of what was going on than the more harsh realities of the time.
With the first and second World Wars, the role of the family and the idealization of the family image became something to improve moral of the troops and give the boys “something worth fighting for.” Of course we had the Third Reich and their own take on purity of the species that put a whole different slant on the idea of family as a way to improve the overall genetic strain of the population. Ignoring the science of survival of the fittest and the improvement of genetics with wider combination of genetic profiles, the scientists of that philosophy focused on identifying the superior race and trying to achieve that through selective breeding, eugenics, and genocide. Not a high point in human evolution.
The 1950’s brought a greater influence of the new-fangled technology of television. Shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver painted the ideal picture of the American family emphasizing the patriarchal pattern where the man is head of the house and all females and children submit to his greater wisdom and intellect. Personally, it makes me a bit nauseous, but I understand where the premise arose. All the men back from the great wars found that the women folk had done just fine without them. Amazing, right? The “weaker sex” had rolled up her sleeves and donned Rosie the Riveter scarves to take on the more traditional roles of the men. When Johnny came marching home, not all the Marys and Janes waiting were so ready to go back to their submissive roles. And… cue Hollywood and its influence upon the masses.
However, time and societal evolution threw another wrench in the mix. Suddenly, the idea of family wasn’t quite fitting into the tidy mold. We had single parents, blended families, children raised by someone other than parents (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, My Three Sons, Mayberry RFD, Family Affair, The Partridge Family, One Day at a Time, The Brady Bunch). Still, for the most part, the family image involved blood connections, but that didn’t quite fit everyone.
We’ve expanded again, but now technology allows us to defy the boundaries of geography to connect with people all around the world. It is a boon for families that have been separated and scattered as diaspora across the globe. Communication on an almost instantaneous media allows for people to remain close emotionally, even when they may not come within physical proximity for decades. So, what does that do to the meaning of “family”? Does that reinforce the concept of family as only that with genetic link? Certainly the number of advertisements and subsequent amateur genealogists point to the curiosity and desire to know and understand our own biological origins, but does that mean that we are bound only to those with whom we share the blood tie?
Definitions of “family” that I have found:
- a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head – doesn’t really say anything about genetic connections there
- a group of persons of common ancestry – how far back are we going?
- a people or group of peoples regarded as deriving from a common stock – again, is there a time or quantifiable limitation on this? I’ve got common stock with 80% of the planet, and don’t get me started about shared DNA with our ape population
- a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation – aha! no bloodlines discussed again
- the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also : any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family – and there it is… that TRADITIONAL definition
Now, in addition to all of these, there is a whole realm of other definitions that relate to chemical and biological science, and more interesting in the dramatic sense the term used to define branches of particular criminal syndicates.
For my own experience, I have been particularly lucky to have had a substantial number of biological family members when I came into this world. At one family reunion, I recall something along the lines of 200 people showing up, and that was just the local representation. This was when I was younger. As the years have passed, so have a good many members of the prior generations. As the various progenitors departed this mortal coil, their progeny moved away, spreading to far geographic provinces. The family gatherings dwindled in number and attendance. My own family moved far away from the proximity of blood relatives even before the dwindling started. Gallivanting about (not entirely at my own whims) I didn’t have the consistency of extended family or even of a particular long term consistent social group at all. This is the lot of military or contract “brat”. We move with the assignments, and while the benefits can be great, there is a tendency to be unstuck in the world and feeling a bit unanchored. The phrase “there’s no place like home” doesn’t always have as much meaning. What many of those in my situation found is that we needed the human contact and interaction to fulfill something in our hearts. Instead of holiday gatherings with blood kin, we gathered in groups of friends with shared interests and experiences, drawn together by circumstance, but over the years developing closer ties and emotional connections than the tenuous ones to biological family so geographically distant (many of whom had never been seen, much less engage with through interaction enough to develop affinity of shared experience). I developed from style of life the idea that family was not defined by what flows through the blood vessels and tissues of the body but something that was more greatly defined by the emotional ties of shared experiences and friendship.
Many years have passed since that first epiphany. I still have some close relationships with those who are related to me by genetic lineage. I dearly love many of my genetic family and have great affection and care for them no matter the years or miles that separate us. However, I have developed significant and truly meaningful relationships with those to whom I have no biological connection except as we share the same species. I have occasionally been ridiculed or even chastised for referring to this group as “the family” as they have no biological ties. To distinguish between those of blood and those of heart, many of us have referred to this second category as “chosen family” or “sworn family.” This is not a designation that indicates hierarchy or importance, but merely a nomenclature that lets people know that while there is no shared genetics, the affection and loyalty is there.
A friend commented on my post that his mother does not believe in the concept of “chosen family”. Apparently the lady believes only in the progeny of the loins as the connection to which any can have love or connection. So, here is my argument:
If family is only that which is connected by ties of blood, what is the status of the legally adopted or those fostered for long enough terms that they mature into adulthood as one of the household? Does this mean that the parents who find it within their hearts to provide and care for children who have been bereft of this affiliation or care cannot claim the privilege of family? And those children, are they unable to feel the affection and loyalty to those who have taken them in? Are they less important and less children of the family than those born biologically?
And what of the biological family that has abused, neglected, or disavowed a child, an elderly parent, the disabled (mentally or physically), or the individual who does not fit particularly into their ideology, philosophy, or social sphere? Is that family more worthy of loyalty and love from the victim of their cruelty or neglect than others who accept them and have affection for them regardless?
How about these strict biology adherents who have a Judeo-Christian (and any of the resulting sects or denominations) religious bent? I have heard their strictures that family is one man, one woman and the progeny of their mating, but in the very next breath they talk about their “church family”. Not that the Judeo-Christian faith has a corner on the market for this ideology, but they appear to be the loudest proponents. If we run some genetic testing, how many of them are going to share DNA? I have seen the cruelty (physical, mental, and psychological) inflicted on people by others who claim familial ties. No one can harm us like those who claim the nearest relation and are supposed to stand for us and with us against the world or at least in support of the trials we face. Is that betrayal and harm so deserving of the title of family over and above people who provide support (emotional or material), stand with us against those who wish to harm, and share emotional times across the breadth of affect spectrum?
I say it is not. I believe that there are people who, without their chosen or sworn family would be bereft of any ties. They could spend their time alone during the days when family is celebrated. Others who have been harshly treated by those of their own blood would be condemned to believe they deserve the ill treatment or at least submit to said treatment. Instead, would it not be preferable to have people interact and associate with people who would positively impact their life?
I am sure that there are many who would disagree, and there are many that have their own beliefs about family and who qualify for the “honor” of membership. However, my bottom line is that my chosen and sworn family is no less real in my heart than those who claim kinship by blood. I would and have been known to do as much for them as I would for those born to the same genetic line. I cannot honestly say that all of them would feel the same, but I do not believe that it is the right of anyone else to define for you who family is in your own understanding. To all the families out there, in all the different configurations, thank you for being there for each other.