What Makes a Family a Family?

Is it enough to have friends in your life? Or do you need to have a family? Can your friends be your family?

My dreams of late have been bothering me because I keep dreaming about my family, and it’s always either hurtful or incomplete, or both. I dream of being excluded and insulted and having to go through some very difficult moments on my own. My family is always just out of reach or completely unresponsive. I wake up feeling more alone than ever.

Before I continue I should probably clarify that when I say my family, I actually mean my relatives. Because I don’t quite consider these people family, not anymore. However, since I do share history and I guess on some level we share DNA, so then technically I am related to them, and they to me. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years so calling them family just feels wrong.

I guess I should start with what I consider family. This has been very hard for me to handle because I was raised that your family are the people you are related to. At a later time, members are added to the family by marriage and birth, and it just keeps growing as people age, until people start dying. So your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, your aunts and uncles, and your cousins, are the family members until people start getting married and having kids of their own.

Friends can be family, sort of. They may join in on certain celebrations or holidays, depending on their relationship with the family. The more people that know (and like) these friends-slash-family members, the more they are considered part of the family. However, they are few, and most friends of other family members rarely graduate to family status.

As I grew up I assumed that all families behaved the same. The ways they would, or wouldn’t interact with each other, the topics they would, or wouldn’t discuss with the family, and the traditions they followed, were all pretty standard from family to family. Most of my friends had pretty much the same experiences with their relatives as I did, so this only further confirmed for me that the way my family was, the way my relatives were, was pretty normal. And in some ways, they were.

And then I started to question things. Against what I knew would become a pretty bumpy road, and a majorly sensitive topic, I started to doubt that maybe things weren’t that normal after all. Maybe the way our family was, was not how families should be. It never felt off to me exactly, I just know it never felt right either.

It always felt so fake and forced. And as I got older I started to dislike family functions less and less, until finally I managed to convince my mom, with great resistance on her part, that I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to. Her and I fought for years on this, and she never ceased to let me know how disappointed in me she was that I would be so rude and defiant to her and our family. Ahem, excuse me, my relatives.

At first I was able to use working as a reason not to go, and having to go in to work afforded me the cushion of avoiding spending time with my relatives and not having to get into it with my mom and how I was single-handedly destroying the universe. This worked most of the time, until I didn’t have to work one time, and I still said I wasn’t going.

Blasphemous, I know.

I stood my ground though, and once I was old enough, and whether I had to work or not, and I knew that she couldn’t force me to go, I stopped going. Full stop. And I didn’t care what they thought. Who even knew what they thought anyway because no one certainly ever talked about things like that. The topics of discussion were always neutral–how was work, what do you think of the weather, is it baseball season–what anyone actually thought, or felt, was never discussed. Unless you felt it was too cold, and you felt it should be baseball season by now.

The departure from spending holidays and birthdays with my relatives was pretty easy for me. I missed talking to one or two of them but mostly I just enjoyed my new freedom. This was when I first started to really question, what did it mean to have a family? Did you have to have a family? Was it mandatory to have a family? What made a family a family?

Is a family a family because you are related to them? And if you’re not related by blood, does that still count as family? What if you’re adopted? What if you don’t have aunts and uncles and cousins? What if you don’t have any siblings? Is there a minimum number of members to the family required to be called a family? And what if you don’t like your family? Related or not. Blood or not. What if you think they are awful people? Should you still call them family? Do you have to?

And what about friends? What about the people that are not related to you that you do like? What about the people who you do care what they think? And the people you can talk to, about more than the weather and sports? Can you call them family?

For so long I felt confused because I had people I was related to that I wasn’t that fond of, I would even go so far as to say I didn’t like them, and they were “family”. And then I had people that I was not related to, that I really liked, some of them I loved, and yet they weren’t technically “family”. So what makes a family a family?

So often I hear how ‘family is everything’ and that your family is basically your whole world, and people saying they would do everything for their family, and how much they love, and like, their families, and I feel so excluded and sad because I don’t feel that about my family, or rather, my relatives. I don’t feel like my relatives are everything, not by a long shot. And I know I wouldn’t do anything for them, and nor would they for me. I know that for a fact.

I started feeling like something must really be wrong with me, and I never should have started asking questions, or pulling the threads of the family ties that felt loose and out of place, because now everything has unravelled and I am left without family. Should I have maintained the status quo, no matter how fake and forced it was, in order to have a “family”?

For years I brushed off the idea of family that so many people talk about as being a utopian world of happiness as something that I will just never have. I decided I would make my family the way I wanted my family to be. I had my mom and my brother, who I never stopped considering as family, and over the years I added my husband and some of his family, and a few of my friends, and they were my family. They still are.

The only problem is…I keep dreaming of my relatives. And it nags me. It bothers me that they have invaded my dreams. And it bothers me that it bothers me. I can’t shake that they are in my thoughts and like it or not, there are some shared things between myself and them, and not just DNA, for however deep or generational that goes. There’s a shared history and some great memories that I wouldn’t otherwise have had I not been spending time with my relatives.

I don’t know if I will ever see or talk to them again. I’m not totally sure if I even want to. If they weren’t related to me I wouldn’t have anything else with these people. To me, that just isn’t family. To me, family is warm. Even thinking of your family should make you feel warm. Family means compassion and kindness. Family means support and encouragement. Family means life is that much better. And with my relatives, that isn’t there. It never has been.

Family is there when you need them. If anyone should be there when all is said done, it’s family. They are there in dark moments and bright ones, and not because they have to be there, because they want to be there. They leave home early to help you move. They get home late because you needed to talk just a little bit longer. They lose sleep for you and cancel other plans if you are in crisis. You can rely on them, and they can rely on you. They know who you are as a person and what you like, and you know them, not just by name and family rank, but by their likes and dislikes, their interests and their hobbies, their values and their beliefs.

It’s not perfect and always harmonious, nothing is, but you feel more positive feelings than negative ones when you think of your family.

There is a mutual respect between you and them, and they like what kind of person you are, and you like them too. There is an honesty and an openness that no matter what mistakes you make, they will still be there for you, and they will always love you. They care about what happens to you, and you care about what happens to them. They are a part of your life.

That, to me, is a family. And I firmly believe, now, more than ever, that family is whomever you want it to be. If you’re lucky you’re born into a family that feels like family. If not, that’s okay too, it just means you haven’t met who will be your family yet. Family can be people you’re related to or not, or they can be the family you create with the people you love and care about, it really doesn’t matter. If they feel like family, then they are.

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