Family…or not?

fam-i-ly

noun

  1. a group of one or more parents and their children living together as a unit. “the family lived in a large house with a lot of land.”
  2. all the descendants of a common ancestor. “The house has been owned by the same family for 300 years.”

adjective

designed to be suitable for children as well as adults. “a family newspaper”

That definition seems really narrow to me. As if family specifically refers to households only with children. So does that mean empty-nest parents are no longer families? What about couples who don’t have children by choice or because they physically cannot? I guess that’s where people get the phrase “get married and then try to start a family,” which is pretty ridiculous to me. A single person with a pet seems like a family to me. A single person who is the guardian for their niece or nephew and they live together? Is that a family?

As I have gotten older and adapted my definition of family, I am learning that other people have a much more narrow definition of family. Like their adult child who moved and got married is still family, but his/her/their spouse is not family. Or when there’s a divorce, the non-blood party is no longer part of the family, even if the children are still related by blood to the rest of the family.

Why not have a large family? Why not welcome everyone who marries into the family with open arms? Why kick someone out of the family because of divorce?

I’m the kind of person who gets attached easily, so letting go of people has always been hard for me. After my divorce, I made it clear to my “former” in-laws that I still consider them family, especially because I’m the one with custody of the kids. I’m the one who is most likely to bring the kids to them or be the one that makes it easiest for them to spend time with the kids. In return, they are welcoming and very accepting of my wife. They’ve made it clear that she is family too, several times. And we have spent holidays and important family events together since the divorce, without the ex because he couldn’t make it.

In a way I still consider the ex family too. It’s an unusual situation, but we have gone on vacation together with the kids. We text regularly and talk on the phone rarely, usually when coordinating exchanging the kids. We did the divorce thing so well, that the kids bring their ipads over when they are talking to him so we can all say hi. It’s something pretty awkward and I don’t want to take away their time to talk to him, but it’s all very cordial. We have made it clear that we are all family still. That way the divorce is hopefully a little easier for them without any drama between us. It’s already hard because they live 14 hours away. He’s very busy with work and can’t talk to them often because he’s usually free when they are at school. But he has almost complete access to call, facetime, and message with them. The only exceptions are during school and when they need to be in bed. But he’s still family.

A long time ago my cousin got married. My mom’s brother and wife adopted her and her sister from Korea when they were preschool/toddler age. We were close when they came to our family because we had no other cousins. It was fun to finally have kids around, even if they were significant younger than my brother and I. I looked out for her when she was in high school and helped her get a job where I worked. I took her to fun places and concerts when she wasn’t old enough to go with friends. Her parents trusted me to drive her and watch her so she could do fun things they didn’t really want to do. I used to watch her and her sister at their house when her parents went away overnight. I talked her through the college application process and her first semester when things weren’t going so well for her. I was one of the first people she told that she finally met the man she was going to marry.

And then she didn’t invite me to her wedding. My parents were invited. All of our other relatives were invited. But neither my brother nor I was invited. I was busy in the Air Force, but not so busy that I couldn’t come to a family wedding. But I did not even receive an invitation. It hurt badly. I didn’t say anything for a long time, even though the pain made me pull away from her. I finally said something passive aggressive on social media and she messaged me and asked if I was talking about her. I told her that I was devastated to not even be invited to her wedding like I didn’t even exist and that it was shitty of her to not invite me. She said she assumed I would be too busy to come. And I replied that she didn’t even give me the option. I told her that I would have tried everything I could to come; that I had seen other people excused from training and duty for family weddings. She said she didn’t know that was possible and that she was very sorry and wished she could take it back. She didn’t really have a good answer as to why she didn’t even call me to ask if it was possible. She didn’t communicate with my parents either. She just didn’t invite me, like I didn’t matter.

My wife’s former in-laws never really accepted her as their daughter-in-law. In fact, they even once introduced her as her husband’s wife. He died on Christmas Eve in 2019 and the next day, Christmas day, his mother pretty much told her to stop crying; that they all felt the loss. And then she asked for family heirlooms back less than 24 hours after he passed away. Who is even thinking about stuff when you lose someone you love??

Since that day, his parents have sent several cards and letters asking for those and other items back. The reasons have been everything from “we have nothing to remember his grandfather by” to “you understand the value of historical collections and how they need to be complete.” My wife has been kind and firm, telling them that these items are important to her and she wants them. The most recent letter this week stated that they don’t care that she has them, but what happens to these things when she’s no longer around? They believe that the stories of these items will disappear into the nether unless they have them because surely her “new family” has no interest in these items.

Here’s the funny part…the items are related to her late husband’s grandfather’s time as a bomber pilot in WWII. And I was in the Air Force as an aviator. I have studied so much about those pilots and what they did. I have heard some of them speak, like the navigator of the Enola Gay. I met this man and he signed a book he wrote for my father, another WWII buff (and history teacher.) Seeing parts of an actual WWII pilot’s uniform and learning more about his experiences was amazing. This man did extraordinary things and I feel connected to him through our military aviation backgrounds.

These same people said that the woman who married the mother’s brother was no longer family when the brother died. They said this out loud, in front of my wife. That clued her into what her fate would be when she lost her husband. It did not even take one day for them to make it clear to her that she was no longer part of her family. At his service, they sat in the back row and made no attempt to stand with her. It was like they were embarrassed to be his parents and they slinked away afterwards. She let them stay with her even after he was gone, knowing that she would probably not be family, but hoping that wouldn’t be the case. They were worried she would throw them out, but that didn’t encourage them to be on their best behavior. I just don’t get this kind of insular family, who don’t want to let anyone in and even when someone is brought in, they shun that person and make things uncomfortable.

Imagine if everyone welcomed people into their family easily. If we opened up our worlds and our definition of family. I look at friends as chosen family. I thought of some coworkers as family. And it really felt like the more, the merrier. But maybe the problem is that for so many of us, family isn’t a safe haven of love. Family means abuse and neglect and not feeling actual love. Maybe we don’t understand that family is supposed to be a good thing until we build our own families that feel safe for us. My nuclear family was something I felt that I needed to escape from. When I went away to college, I rarely came home and I hated coming home when I finally had to. Once I had been out on my own for awhile and my parents made changes to the home we lived in when I was a teenager, it started feeling like just my parents’ house and not my former home. That was oddly comforting because it was easier to visit them when it looked different and didn’t feel like the scene of some really bad stuff. And then they moved to a completely new house, it was much easier to visit.

But I don’t connect to them intentionally. I don’t want to get close to them. They spent my entire childhood telling me who I was and who I was going to be. They ignored me and the person I was on the inside. So they felt unsafe to me. I have various layers of me and I only let them in 1-2 layers. I can’t trust them to not hurt me again. As soon as they start lecturing me on how they perceive my life to be, I tune them out. I just can’t listen to what they think has been going on my entire life. Their narrative is so much better than my reality. By definition we were a family, but there was no emotional support. My father and I are trying to work on getting closer through this program and he says things like “we always let you kids express your emotions freely and I think that went well.” That’s not at all what happened and when I told him that I did feel free to be angry or happy, but sadness was not permitted. He did not let me finish and lectured me on my mother’s upbringing. I get it and I know how she was raised. I get that it sucked and she wasn’t emotionally supported, but she also wasn’t emotionally supportIVE. And he shut me down when I tried to talk about it. And so…it’s just a layer or two for them. When the program asks questions about my fears and anxieties, I stick to the easy and the obvious. Not the deep things I need to talk about in therapy. Not the fact that I am working hard to zip the person he knows me to be into Little Zander to make the real me. I am not ready for him to even know that Little Zander exists.

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