I’ve always had a pretty expansive understanding of family.
As a young child, I lived with my extended family in Texas for a number of months while my mother recovered from her first terrible bout with depression. I was young – just three – so I don’t remember all of the details, but I do know that I was loved deeply by everyone there. We spent many more summers down in Texas throughout my childhood, and I always thought of my family there as more than “extended.”
Maybe it was because my mom wasn’t always well, but I learned to think about family with a broad lens as I grew older, too. My mom’s best friend, Mary Grace, played an integral role in my childhood, but became much more than a family friend as I entered adulthood without my mother. She helped plan my wedding and held newborn Tommy hours after he was born. She came to DC when things were good and when things were terrible and she treated my children like they were her own. I am not related to Mary Grace by blood, but she is family.
I’ve tried to instill this idea of family into my kids as well, and they seem to conceptualize family in this broad way too. Claire loves to announce that she has “13 cousins” in Texas even though really she only has one. The others are actually her second cousins, but no one seems to think so narrowly about it. Again, because my mom is gone, my kids don’t have a grandmother on that side. But they have their Nana and Aunt Terry and others who are technically their great aunts and uncles but they see as much more like grandparents.
“Technically” seems like a stupid way to think about family, anyway.
And yet, when I became a young widow at 38, I remember often thinking how small my family had become. I often felt like it was just me and the kids against the world.
That was understandable, I guess, but it wasn’t true. My dad lived with me from the moment Shawn died until the pandemic struck, and he will likely return when it’s safe. When tragedy hit, my dad didn’t just hope for the best. He sprung into action. “It’s the right thing to do,” he’d say in response when I’d ask him about his choice to live with us after Shawn’s death. “We are family.”
For Tommy in particular, the idea of family is something that’s never been narrowly defined. For much of the past 2 1/2 years, he saw his Grandpa Tom as a father figure, and would say as much to the people around us. “Grandpa Tom is my dad!” he announced to his classmates and teachers and friends on a regular basis. When I’d point out that he had a father who just wasn’t here, he would say, “yes! Shawn is my dad in heaven and Grandpa Tom is my dad in our house.”
It was a fair point.
Because what did it really matter what Tommy called my dad? Why was it important the title that my dad – or anyone – had? If there is an adult who is loving my children, they can go by any damn name that they want. Sure, I guess sometimes we get the names of “dad” or “grandma” through lineage, but mostly I think those sorts of titles are earned.
I know they have been in my family.
And yet – it’s still complicated, especially as I start to reconceptualize my family once again. What does is mean to add a new partner to my life and to the lives of my children?
For Tommy, it’s pretty easy. Just a few days after Chris first came to stay with us, Tommy looked right at him and asked, “so, are you our dad now?”
For real. I mean, no pressure! We’re all cool here!
Chris, to his credit, understands that things can be complicated when it comes to my kids. What are all the roles is he supposed to play? How should my kids refer to him when they are talking to their friends? What does it mean to actively parent three kids, but technically not have any legal tie to them?
And yet, “technically” seems like a stupid way to think about our new family too. Does the paperwork say that Chris is my children’s father? No, it does not. Do my children refer to Chris as “dad”? No, they do not. Do any of us share a last name with Chris? No we do not.
But he loves them. And they love him.
And that’s family.