What Makes a Family?

family, family tree, friendship, family values


It’s Thanksgiving in the United States this week, a Thanksgiving following an election.  Americans go all out on Thanksgiving – turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, all manner of pies.  It’s like Christmas really.  Americans have two Christmases a year and I’ve never been left alone on either of them.  They’re  like that, at least the Americansn I know are.  They invite you into their home and make you an honorary member of their family.

Family is important in this country.  Politicians crow on about it endlessly and about something they call ‘family values’.  I haven’t quite worked out yet what family values are in this increasingly polarized nation but they seem to have something to do with marriage, heterosexuality, being gainfully employed, having a home and a car.  Family values also preclude things like abortions and, bizarrely in this year’s election, contraception.  That eliminates a wide swathe of the population.

This year I’ll spend Thanksgiving with a motley collection of people who call themselves a family:  a male friend and his third wife, her stepmother and her second husband, a twenty-two year old single mother, her boyfriend and her son, a good woman friend, long divorced and her adult son…and me, an emigrant.  I’ll spend Christmas with one of my closest friends, a thirty something straight writer and her two gay male housemates who also see themselves as family.  I’m invited into other families too – a huge Irish American one and a tiny one made up of an old friend and his little daughter.

I don’t recognize the families politicians talk about, the ones defined as man and woman, wedding rings and kids who sail through college, find a good job and live happily ever after.  They probably exist, but increasingly in my experience, a family is a strange, oddly shaped collection of people who choose to be together and who define themselves in whatever way they choose.

I like these families where difference is embraced, where being ‘normal’ is not a requirement for membership and where strangers are invited in.  In spirit, they seem to have more in common with the family in Bethlehem that gave rise to Christmas than with the family at the center of the recent bitter and divisive political debates.