Thursday, September 10, 2015

Being Part of the Family

            My sister lives out west with her boyfriend (let’s call him Michael). They’ve been together for a couple of years now and bought a house together last Christmas, but as they are on the front-end of the millennial generation no one was quite sure whether they would bother with the whole wedding thing or not. The question had been floating around the holidays and summer visits for a while though I was never privy to a moment when it was brought out into the open. Instead, we discussed it in quiet, gossipy undertones that always felt weirdly hysterical. It wasn’t so much that we cared one way or the other whether they officially got married. It was that we were plagued by the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect from them. We couldn’t put them into our categorical box and move on to other things because we didn’t know which box to put them in.
            The resolution to all of this came last week with the news that Michael had finally “popped the question.” This set off a flurry of text messages back and forth, some phone calls, and a good bit of preliminary planning with regards to dates and places and styles.
            All the fuss has made Pip and Polly a bit confused. They have met Michael during each of the past two Christmases at my folk’s house and have found him to be fun in a tentative, supplemental way. My mother tends to swarm the kids during this time so it’s hard for anyone else to do much with them, but Michael has shared his guitar with them and shown Pip some card tricks and let Polly try taking some pictures with his camera. To them, he is an amusing side character, someone who is there but not someone that they have particularly strong feelings about. However, in the wake of his engagement to my sister, my mother has told them both individually that Michael “is going to be part of our family now.” She did this, I imagine, as a way of trying to explain what it means to get married but all this did was make Polly and Pip more confused. “Being part of the family” is an abstract concept. They are not abstract beings. So, they turned to Ava and me to find out what this all means in practice.
            The answer is that Michael’s now “being part of the family” means practically nothing new. We will not be seeing any more of him than before. Our knowledge (and trust or lack thereof) of him will not suddenly change. He will still be subject to the same positionality during family holidays and the same gradual processes of incorporation that have been going on previously. He will become a more familiar and more comfortable person to them over time (or he won’t). His now being married to my sister will not change any of that. The biggest change I can possibly see at this point is that the kids may call him Uncle Michael instead of just Michael.
            In thinking about this question of what it means to be part of a family, particularly in an era where so many families are like ours – spread broadly across the country – I keep coming back to this idea: that family is much more about one’s history together than one’s biological and legal ties. I have been thinking about this along two distinct tracks. The first is that I have a couple of friends with whom I keep in pretty regular contact. I’ve known them for close to two decades. I went to college with them, saw them get their first jobs, watched them get married, have kids, lose parents, get divorced. I’ve called them to celebrate my own triumphs and to get advice on how to handle my own trials. I trust them with thoughts I wouldn’t share with anyone else. I rely on them almost as much as I rely on Ava. They are not blood. They are not family. But as thick as we are together, they might as well be.
            My second track of thinking has to do with biological parentage and adoption. In the last decade or so, reproductive technologies have become a huge business for couples who want to have children and are having trouble doing so. Ava and I were fortunate enough to not have to endure this kind of struggle, so I obviously do not know how it feels. However, given the cost and the effort involved with these various procedures, I don’t quite understand why people are so ready to undergo them. Is adoption really that difficult an option? Is there something about the notion of a child not being really yours if it doesn’t share your blood? This second thought strikes me as incredibly ridiculous. Having now spent almost nine years with my children, I can say with authority that who they are has little to nothing to do with their biology. Their thoughts, their feelings, their reactions to situations, their likes, their dislikes – all of it comes from what they’ve learned by being around Ava and me. They are our children because we raised them. We are a family because of the time and effort we expend on each other. We are a family because of our history, not our biology.
            And so, Michael is going to be part of our family now, except that he’s really not. Not yet anyway. For that we’ll still need a little more time.


  1. This is interesting reading but I'd have to disagree about genetics. The more I observe and experience non-biological children, the more I see that a large part of who they are is genetic and can be impacted but probably not entirely changed by nuture. That's not a reason not to adopt and there are way too many factors for a controlled experiment. :)

    And, while I'm at it, I think that the issue with live-ins that is being pinpointed is committment. It doesn't always work out, but it seems to me that "popping the question" is another way of making a long-term committment. In fact, wedding ceremonies usually involve some (evidently rashly made) promises about the rest of one's life. I can see why an extended family would be holding back a little, wondering if it's worthwhile to invest in someone emotionally who's not likely to be around for long. But in-laws in their many forms are complicated and not often to be compared with Good Friends. :)

  2. Thanks Tara. Those are fair points all. The reality of relationships within families is always very complicated and trying to explain such things to my kids is even more so. I guess I feel that the expressions of commitment in a wedding ceremony or the claims that one is part of the family now presume a shift in relations that will really only happen over time. They are a promise, an expression of hope even, but one whose real test is still down the road.