What is family?
For many people family is there when you are born and when you die and no matter what you do in the years in between, it is family that is there for you in the beginning and in the end. For the years between birth and death, family is the group of people that claim you and raise you, people you see for the holidays, people you call on birthdays, people you depend upon when life knocks you down. This is, of course, the concept of family. It is rarely the reality. The reality is that sometimes family is not there when you need them. Sometimes parents and children become estranged. Sometimes siblings quit speaking over some little squabble. We all know the concept of what family is suppose to be but for so many of us family is not that ideal. How many entertaining stories can all of us tell about the holidays with the family? The ideal becomes less picturesque.
So why do we do it? Why do we spend a fortune commuting across the country every December to spend a few days with people that drive us nuts? Why do we devote all of our love and resources to a child that could one day hate us and cut us out of their life? Why do we entertain friendly phone calls with siblings we would rather punch in the face?
I know there’s something to this family thing, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what it’s all about yet. While family is supposed to be the supportive force behind everyone’s success, it is often the reason we never venture out at all. How many young people have grappled with a parent that wants what’s “best” for them but really only wants what will keep their child away from danger and living nearby? How many people hear “when are you going to have kids?” every time they see their folks like choosing not to have children is unacceptable? It is family that shapes our earliest impressions of the world, and it is family that keeps a strong influence over us well into our adult lives. Not surprisingly, it is family we learn to resent the most when we feel held back from the guilt of not doing what’s right “for the family.”
This past weekend my partner and I experienced both the death of a family member and the celebration of a birthday all in the same twenty-four hour period (and not one death or cake joke?!). It got me thinking about family. During that twenty-four hours our family challenged us countless times about our decision to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes it was masked as concern, “it’s much more expensive to live up there, how ever will you afford it?” Sometimes it was masked as curiosity, “what will you do for work?” Sometimes it was us asking each other, “are we comfortable being far away when the next family member is in a hospital on life support?” But last night after a number of cocktails and a football game one of our relatives came right out and asked it, “Are you sure you want to live so far away from us?”
It bothers the family that we want to move away. Why? Do they feel like we are rejecting them by leaving? Do they think we’ll never call or write or visit again? Do they think we are inept at life and will certainly fail if we live more than fifty miles away? What is it about family that makes people comfortable telling other grown people how – or in this case where – to live? How does insecurity find a foothold in a group of people that consistently gather for deaths, births, weddings, and holidays?
Families are supposed to function like a mast, not an anchor. They are supposed to be the wind in your sails, not the gale blowing you back into the port. But it’s family that uses scare tactics to keep you from venturing out. It’s family that wants you to have a baby instead of spend a year in Ecuador. It’s family that wants you to become a doctor like your father and his father and his father. But we endure it. And we continue to come home for the holidays. Why? Because it’s family that donates a kidney when you need it. It’s family that helps you bury your pets in the backyard. It’s family that takes you in when your business ventures fail. It’s family that claims you as an infant. It’s family that claims you as a corpse. Family becomes this network of mostly involuntarily connected people charged with taking care of one another. And its awful and its wonderful. Because it’s family.