Family relations are fraught for so many of us, and my views on family, obligation, and society seem to startle some people. They are too stark or cold or bleak or any number of dire adjectives, I am informed. Or I will change my mind later and be filled with regrets. It’s certainly true that society is structured in a way to encourage me to feel regrets when it comes to how I feel about familial relationships; it’s extremely difficult to overcome social conditioning.
I should note that I am speaking of a lived experience as a nonadoptee in white, secular US culture. I say this at the outset because I want to make it clear that the things I talk about here are my own experiences, and while some people share them, not all do. It is not possible to generalise when it comes to statements about how people view family and interact with family relationships, not when you are considering the huge spectrum of human experience.
For me, family is what you make it. By which I mean that sharing some amino acid chains with some people doesn’t create a sense of obligation or connection to them. I may have a genetic relationship with them, which is all well and good, but anything further needs to be built. It doesn’t spring into being. And genetic relationships don’t erase betrayal and any number of other sins, despite what society wants me to think, despite what I am trained to believe. Nor do lack of such relationships make connections less meaningful.
I am estranged from part of my family. Usually when I say this, people get sad eyes and they pat me on the arm and say it will all work out in the end. Or they tell me how sorry they are. This is supposed to be a tragic state. Finding out that someone isn’t in contact with part of ou family evokes feelings of strong sadness on the part of many people because people are told that family is the most important thing. Along with these attitudes also comes, though, a sense of shaming; I must have done something wrong, to be estranged, there must be something wrong with me for viewing my sad state with such equanimity, for referencing estrangement as casually as one might mention having relatives in Stockton.
I’m not sad I’m estranged. I’m happy that I built up the self determination and strength to separate myself, that I don’t feel obliged to live in a state of constant conflict with myself to uphold social norms. Talking with other people who are separated from their families by choice, I find a common thread; many of us would be quite happy, if people would stop leaving us alone with their puppy dog eyes and comments about how sad it all must be.
People assume that because I am cut off from some people with DNA in common, that I do not have a family. This is what people are sad about, the thought of someone living without fellowship, friendly faces, and support. People who enjoy close connections with some or all of their families can’t imagine having those emotional ties severed and think life would be bleak without Aunt Susan or Granddad in it. And for them, it absolutely would be, because they have built strong connections with those people.
I have a family, though, and that gets erased when people bemoan my estranged state. My family is not, for the most part, comprised of people to whom I am directly related. But that doesn’t make them any less my family. I have a network of people I can rely upon, who provide support and assistance, a good laugh sometimes, a delivery of soup when I’m feeling dour and skulking in the living room and people start to worry. Those people are my family and I can’t imagine living without them and my ties with them are strong because we built them from the ground up. We weren’t thrust together by happenstance, we had to seek each other out and decide we were worth it. This kind of family is common in the queer community, where people may be estranged from their families involuntarily and they need to build new ones to survive.
But it’s not exclusive to queer folks. After all, my family includes transgender and queer people, but it also includes cis, heterosexual people. It includes people with disabilities and nondisabled people. People who are extremely wealthy and people who are very poor. It includes people of colour and nonwhite people. It spans continents and cultures, which is more than you can say for some families. And they are my family, and I love them, and would go to the ends of the earth for them and fight for them in any arena you care to name.
For some people, maybe those kinds of connections are indeed primarily based on genetic or adopted relationships. Those people lucked out, and happened to have family members whom they also want to be family with, like my father and I. Others of us are forced to cast a little further afield to find people we want to connect with and spend our lives with; to find the people we want to, as I said one night, sit in a meadow drinking lemonade and eating sandwiches with while we watch unicorns play.
To treat estrangement as a tragedy and the worst thing ever is to override the actual experiences of estranged people. Some people absolutely do suffer and struggle when they are separated from their families, for a variety of reasons; maybe it was not by choice, maybe the separation is complex, maybe they are forced to cut off people they love in the interests of protecting themselves from people who are abusive and dangerous. Those people need support, though, rather than empty platitudes about how sad it all is. And for those of us who are happily estranged, well, we could benefit from substantially less repeating of tropes and substantially more lemonade.
I am told that I will ‘regret’ this at some point in the future. Pop culture tells me this a lot; in almost every narrative where a character is separated from close family members, the story ends in reconciliation. Even if those family members did horrible things. Very rarely does pop culture affirm the choice to remain estranged. In cases where that reconciliation never happens, the character is left adrift and sad, filled with unhappiness and longing for what can never be. In the face of that, sometimes it is a struggle for people to be happy with the families they have spent painstaking time building.