Sunday, August 4, 2013

You Can't Have Too Many Dads...or Moms: The importance of chosen family

If you ask most people about their families, they'll name a dad, a mom, perhaps a stepparent or two, a sibling or three, Meemaw and PopPop and Nana and Grampa Bill , aunts and uncles, the cousins they used to play with and now only see once a year. Ask a little deeper, like if they seem them much or where they live, and you'll probably get one of two responses. Their faces will light up and they'll talk about the time their mom fell into the birthday case or Uncle Rick forgot his wife's birthday and had to sleep in the garage for a week. Or they will shut down and give brief answers, that Dad left when they were a kid, everyone lives hundreds of miles away, that they get together at Thanksgiving but it's an obligation.

Ask them, then, about their chosen family. "What do you mean?", they ask. "What do I mean?", you ask yourself. "What do YOU mean?", you ask me.

I think that chosen family are the people we choose to surround ourselves with, the people who are so often closer to us than our blood relatives, the people we want to call the minute something good or bad happens, the people we lean on, and the people who do all these things in return...not that we always want them to. Stop for a minute right now. You can think of them. The guy you call bro who really is like a brother, minus the years of punching each other in the car. The woman you'd never, ever even think about putting your hands on, because she's the person who helps you through your toughest days. The old guy down the street who showed you how to fry a turkey without setting yourself or the house on fire, and who you would never dream of not  inviting to the 4th of July BBQ. The people who you tell the things you can't tell your family, because you don't want to disappoint or upset them, or have them judge you because you went to the ballet on Saturday night. The guys who are willing to make Aunt Sherry's Christmas Cookie Yummies disappear because you can't bear to tell her you'd rather eat lawn clippings. Your golf buddies who never make you feel like you did something wrong because you lost a case last week. The clerks who would never, ever tell anyone that you rented Mona Lisa Smile but are always willing to talk about your new favorite rom-com.

These are the people who keep your secrets, no matter how much they want to get a laugh at a party or one-up the loudmouth at the bar, but always know the right time to drop a "Remember when..." to loosen the tension in a room. The people who will never see your wrinkles, gray hair, or spare tire, or get keenly jealous that while they have all three, haven't aged a day since you turned 30. These are the family that are there for all of the things that our own families can't be part of, or that we want or need to withhold from them. My partner's mom doesn't need to know how excited we get when our girlfriend designs a new scarf pattern, but we'll tell our chosen sisters-and even a few bros. His uncle doesn't need to know that the dog ate part of the bathroom rug and then barfed it up. He'd get sick with worry, while our dog friends would tell us what their dogs ate. And when we're having feeling-rotten days, my best friend and I usually hole up and commiserate, and my mom is none the wiser. She and I are very close, but some things I just don't need to burden an aging parent with.

Do we fight with our chosen family? Yes. Do we go months without talking to them? Yes. Do we drift apart and drift together? Yes. Do different members crash and rub and require separation at birthdays and weddings? Absolutely. They are, like us, human. But we absolutely need them.

But we choose them. We are not born to them or them to us. And every man, whether he wants to admit it or not, can use an extra brother, sister, mom, dad...or some of each.

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