Families of choice

I wanted a sister when I was a kid. I had a brother who I was close to but I dreamed of having a sister. I really wanted a big sister who had great clothes and would let me borrow them and a little sister who I could boss about but secretly love.

I never had my dream fulfilled. My parents only had two kids. But through my lifetime I have found sisters. Sisters by choice not biology.

My big sister lives in Seattle. I recently got to spend 10 days traveling around the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her and my daughters. We’ve been in each other’s lives for almost 30 years. I’ve never borrowed her clothes as she’s much shorter than me, but she never fails to give me good advice.

I had brunch today with my little sister. She lives in Sydney and we catch up a couple of times a year. I don’t boss her about, although I did start off as her boss in a job more than a decade ago. I eventually encouraged her to quit and move to London. She took my advice, moved to London and blossomed, as I knew she would. And she returned to Australia two years later with more confidence, more experience and more sass. Just like a little sister.

Like many people who have ended up living far away from their biological family, I have created a family of choice. For a whole lot of reasons, biological families can be difficult. Families of choice help us through life, when our biological families just can’t for one reason or another. Our families of choice are people we choose to spend time with, those who love us for who we are, not because of any blood tie. They are the ones I can count on to have my back when I need them.

All those years ago I wished for a sister. I now have several. Besides the two above, there are four others who came into my life originally because our kids were friends in primary school. We were each other’s emergency contact if our kids got sick, our kids were always at each other’s houses and every Friday afternoon for years we hung out together at Fun Friday (so dubbed by the kids) talking, sharing laughs, tears, stress and developing deep friendships.

These women have seen me at my lowest and always have my back. They have helped me move into three different houses in the past five years, they’ve sat with me, counselled me, cried with me, laughed with me, celebrated with me. They are true sisters.

One of these ‘sisters’ has just had a life changing health diagnosis. After her mother, I was the first person she called from the hospital and from there, I let our other ‘sisters’ know. As I entered her hospital room yesterday, her family were debating whether to let one of her biological brothers know what was going on. My ‘sister’ hasn’t spoken to him for years and doesn’t want to tell him. Of course, her mother thinks he has a right to know.

I’ve thought about this a lot in the intervening 24 hours. Does someone have a right to know something just because they are family? Does that blood tie mean something when a relationship between two people isn’t fostered and nurtured? Good relationships need nurturing, caring, open communication and love. So often our egos get in the way of that nurturing; that love. All relationships require hard work and there’s a lot at stake when it comes to family.

Growing up in my family, I was told time and time again that family is everything. My maternal grandmother grew up in an orphanage and for her, having a large family all around her was everything she had dreamed of as a kid. The fact that the family dynamic was dysfunctional was neither here nor there. We were all meant to ignore the problems and focus on being a family, no matter what. As soon as my grandmother died the family unraveled, not suprisingly, since the problems and dysfunction had never been faced, addressed and solved.

Why are biological families often such hard work? You would think they would be by definition the closest people in the world to us. And for some people, I think they are. But for many more, we struggle with the families we are born into.

Often childhood slights and experiences solidify into adult opinions and roles for each member of the family. It’s almost like each of us is born to a role and are given a script when we arrive. The more we stick to that script, the more dysfunction occurs. The more we can throw out the script, forgive and forget past slights and open communication channels with our family members, the better relationship we can foster. It requires a lot of vulnerability between members which is hard to step into when everyone’s roles feel set in stone. And both family members have to come to the party.

Not everyone can do it.

My favourite book this year so far has been Educated by Tara Westover. I read it months ago and it has stuck with me. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It is the courageous story of a young woman raised in extraordinary and abusive familial circumstances who eventually uses education to break the bonds of familial guilt, shame, loyalty and even love to create a life for herself. It’s a story that is so far from what most of us experienced growing up and yet, in many ways relates to every family on the planet.

I recently listened to an interview with Tara about her family where she said: “We have an incredible capacity to see what we want to see. The thing about my family is that the love was real. I wasn’t tricked into loving my brother, I actually loved my brother and I think he loved me. And the same is true of my parents. The love was real. And I think that sometimes maybe our ideas about love are really simplistic and we think of it as a something that fixes everything; if the love is real then you definitely have to stay in the relationship because there is love in the relationship. I’ve almost developed this bizarre idea that maybe the only way to respect love, really respect love is to respect it’s limits. And respect that it doesn’t give you the power to change other people. And you can love someone, that’s why you can love someone, and still choose to say goodbye to them. Because it’s not necessarily a question of whether you love them, it’s a question of whether they belong in your life.”

It seems to me that being a member of a family is a privilege, not a right. Each and every one of us has the right however to make choices for ourselves. Choices of who we love, who we trust, who we call family and who we don’t. So really, all of my family, whether biological or not, are a family of choice because I believe they belong there.

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