Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.
Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.
“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
They weren’t wrong.
The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years. For generations, many of us have been expected to turn a blind eye to the ways patriarchal domination of women’s and children’s bodies perpetuates abuse in our own family systems. My inability to sweep these abuses under the carpet, to keep silence and pretend all is well, has led to my estrangement from one entire side of my family. It’s an estrangement I feel will be permanent, and while I grieve the loss of an ideal I never had, I welcome the opportunity to live authentically and boldly, confident in my dedication to my ideals, which include honesty, justice, and the unconditional protection of children and vulnerable populations.
For a while, I sat with the gap this estrangement created in my life, unwilling to fill it with harmful relationships with those to whom I am blood-related, yet hesitant to broadly redefine it in a way that negates the importance of those who have chosen to love and raise up a child, however imperfectly. Raising my own children, I’ve made a more than a few mistakes — I react, I mess things up, I fall short. I apologize… a lot. I don’t ever want my children to look back at my own estrangement, my own re-visioning of “family,” and see it as minimizing the importance I place on my relationships with them. At the same time, those of us whose families of origin are unable to show up for us fully and unconditionally, whether it is through absence, abuse, or simply not being able to accept parts of our lives and our stories, deserve to create spaces and social networks in which we feel wholly loved, always accepted, and tenderly supported.
This is a social and psychological necessity; humans are social creatures, not meant to live in isolation. The fundamental nature of our existence is interdependence, both with the other humans in our spheres — those like and unlike us — as well as with the ecological web in which we find ourselves and its constituent animals and plants and processes. Amped-up, hyper-masculine models of “independence” in which bootstrapping your way through life without help is the only acceptable way to have your own strength, wisdom, and maturity honored? These models emerge from a Western construct that has been developed and honed to justify centuries of disruption of families and communities in the name of colonial expansion, slavery, and unrestricted, toxic capitalism.
Last year, Kate Brunner wrote about her understanding of what makes a matriarchal society, saying: “The underlying ethos of a matriarchal society is one that prioritizes care-taking and peacemaking within a context that respects and values the innate capabilities and inherent worth of its members and its environment; balancing the realities of different genders and generations as it does so… A matriarchy does not simply swap men for women when it comes to who’s in charge and women for men for who’s supposed to shut up and take it. A matriarchy revisions community structure completely, bringing the focus down to the clan, instead of up to the community leader.”
In my spiritual understanding, we are each made of the same substance — each tangible, physical expressions of a single divine reality. Harm to one creates harm to all, and our well-being is intertwined with each other’s, just as it is with the well-being of our communities, ecosystems, and planet. There is no grace in failing to step up for others in their times of struggles, no shame in allowing others to step up for us in our own challenging times, and no wisdom in refusing to reach out when we are, on the deepest levels of our being, craving connection and needing encouragement. We are meant to support each other in a continual exchange of love and tenderness, a perpetual flow of grace that models and expresses sacred compassion and divine love.
“Family” is broad; it is not without meaning. Not all of our networks of support and encouragement would be considered “family.” I have intimate networks of friends with whom I share love and affection and dialogue who would not be considered family. I have people with whom I share fewer details of my life and thinking who I do consider to be family. How to understand “chosen family” is something each of us must figure out for ourselves, and our definitions may differ.
Unconditional love and acceptance; setting boundaries with compassion, intention, and wisdom; and being willing to show up for our chosen family in times of challenge as well as times of joy — these are parts of my definition, but not its whole. It’s something intangible, indefinable, but inextricably bound up in my “same substance” cosmology and conviction of our spiritual interdependence.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds an Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice, and is currently plotting her next round of graduate studies. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.