I have thought a lot about “family” over the last couple years. Between getting divorced rather unexpectedly and having children leave home, my family was undergoing major changes. Not that long ago, I started a new job. This meant I met a whole bunch of new people who, in an effort to get to know me, asked me about my family. Do you have children? Are you married? I usually start this explanation with laughter, as it is always more complicated than the person asking the question anticipates. There are also two answers; a short answer for those co-workers with whom I want to maintain a professional relationship and a long answer for those I want to become a real part of my life.
Often, I hesitate to offer the long version until I am sure about the person I am telling it to. Many years of experience and hurt have made me realize that not everyone can be trusted. This is okay. I don’t count it as bitterness (although if I am honest sometimes it is). I count it as being cautious, while still trying to maintain the belief that there is good in everyone. I have always tried to see each human who comes into my life as being as vulnerable as I. Their anger and angry behavior is often the result of their own pain. I try to account for that until it begins to have a negative impact on my own sense of well being and then I have to avoid it, and avoid them, for my own health and safety.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years, and the most important one, is that family has nothing to do with blood or marriage. Family is what you make it, whom you make it with and the love and effort you put into it. (Family can also be full of “fireworks” explosive and colorful and needing to be handled carefully for everyone’s safety). The first question people usually ask me about my family is how many children I have. I start by telling them I have four by birth and one by luck. The further explanation is that I also have a son-in-law who no longer lives with my daughter but is legally related and a son-in-law who has been with my other daughter for over a decade but they have never gotten married, who is more son-in-law than any legal paper could ever make him. Then there are all the children who came into my life because o f my own children. They came to our home, they slept on our couch. I took them in when they needed a place to crash or a meal, or just someone to talk to. They are often, just as much a part of my family as anyone could be. So the answer to how many children I have is complex and fluid and full of lots of years of laughter, love and occasional fireworks!
My children by birth also have a complicated extended family. They have a biological father who pops in and out, and an x-step father who actually raised them. They have aunts and uncles and cousins by blood who we haven’t seen in years but still share a piece of our hearts and our family history with. They have grandparents and step-grandparents and step aunts and uncles from my own complicated family of origin. They have half siblings from their father’s new relationships. They have the “extra” brother who joined our family late in life but counts just as much as each of them counts. Then they have the “adopted” aunts and uncles, the friends who wrapped their arms around us in times of need and became our family. They are my family of choice rather than by blood, the family who was there for us while my biological family was many hundreds of miles away.
It is complicated but it is complicated in the way a patchwork quilt is complicated. It’s beautiful and colorful and it keeps us warm.
“In the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make.” Paul McCartney