The Definition of Family

Extended family from 3 continents at my brother’s wedding
(Nes kirke, Norway, August 2010)

I’ve been thinking a lot about family recently.  We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his “unwieldy crew” at the airport, when my daughter Eliza sighed, “It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins.”  Knowing there was no actual blood relation, I cross-examined her on why she thought they were our cousins.  (It must sometimes stink to have a lawyer for a mom.) Finally she said in frustration, “Because, I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support?  The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

When I was at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, I met a woman who runs a cook shop there.  Called Ma Fatu, her feisty personality would have been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or of an inn in medieval England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would serve me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.  

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the  possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.   When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.

I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.  I once had a client say to me, “I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!” 

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Back when the UDHR was written in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less the multiple forms of family that exist today.

Now, I am a strong supporter of same-sex marriage.  I also believe that the equal rights of LGBT persons to marry, file joint taxes, visit partners in hospital, raise children, etc.  will be guaranteed by law sooner rather than later.  But the bigger point I’d like to make is that, no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the change in law happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define themselves as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people –like Ma Fatu – will create their own families. 

Maybe my six-year-old Eliza is right – the true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe IS really the people who you feel like are your family.  And if that is so, wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected our families? 

So I think the real questions are: How do you define your family?  What does your family mean to you?  And what could our society and State do better to support YOUR family?

Everyone has the right to an opinion and I'd love to hear yours! While comments are very welcome, they will be moderated. My kids read this blog, too!

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