What’s a Family?

familyfriends2A generation ago, defining a “family” was easy. Husband, wife, children, occasionally along with close relatives as peripheral subjects. Today, not so easy. We have same-sex parents, single parents, substitute families that include friends, many families that include no children at all. I have to wonder if, in the past, we just ignored those people who didn’t fit into our template of “family,” for I know there were half-orphans and orphans as well as pairs of “good friends” whose exact relationships went undefined.

Now people are stepping up and speaking out to create their own families. The best definition I’ve heard, although the least exact, is a family is whatever we define as “family,” much the same as “art.” While this vagueness makes categorization a challenge to non-members of a family (so do I hug my second cousin’s roommate as if he were a blood relative or politely shake his hand?), and certainly hasn’t been adequately dealt with by insurance benefits officers, it seems a wise move in a time when we need every connection we can lay our hands on.

We no longer have tribes on whom we can depend to provide routines, rituals, safety nets. I have a number of single friends getting along in years who face difficult decisions about their own care as well as eventual disposal of their assets and ashes. Even more important for day-to-day living, who celebrates our birthdays and holidays with us? A Facebook greeting is an inadequate substitute for a glass of cheer. So we cobble together our own families out of whichever acquaintances have something in common with us and can tolerate us. And vice versa.

Which brings me to a novel I read recently about an unusual family comprised of an older sister who suddenly becomes her eleven-year-old half-brother’s guardian after the death of his mother. In Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine, set in the 60s and 70s, these two manage to create a real family, supplemented by three suitors for the sister’s hand, and eased by the relative wealth they’ve inherited. I really like novels that feature families, maybe because I’m still trying to figure out my own. The tribulations brother and sister face rise in the main from their own struggles to grow up and learn who they are, in the end trumped, as we all are, by the vagaries of dispassionate fate. If you’re looking for a book with fascinating, real characters writing their own life stories as best they can, this is it. It may give you hope about your own path.