So, what does family really mean?
Do any of these stories fit your concept of family?
• A woman I know received a call from her brother recently. Not such a big event, perhaps, except that neither she nor any other member of the family had heard from him in over 15 years – and they didn’t think this was particularly remarkable.
• A man I once met told me that his wife works south of the city, he works north of the city and their son boards at high school in the city. They are lucky to meet up together once a year.
• A close friend of mine found out that her mother was actually her grandmother, and I’ve heard stories of similar discoveries over the years, a reflection of the lack of open communication within certain cultures and family circles.
I have spoken to women who’ve changed their identities to keep themselves and their children safe from the family they grew up with or the family they built, once full of hope and promise for the future.
For most single parents, the family story starts with the promise of support from a second adult to build a new family unit together. That’s what you pay for, if you like. When that adult support is lost it throws you into an uncertain future and thrusts upon you the huge responsibility of raising kids solo – that’s not what you had in mind at all –that wasn’t your concept of family.
Families in today’s world must fight to remain relevant, in the face of distance: the inevitable side effect of seeking fulfilling work or other opportunities, damage: emotional, psychological and physical, which has always been with us but is slowly being drawn into the light, and indifference: the apathy that affects many families, born of overwork, poor communication and the ‘upgrade’ culture we live in. Individuals in a family don’t feel as if they have anything in common with each other, and drift away in the wind.
Is this what the idea of family has become? Fractured units of human beings, distanced from each other, damaging to each other and indifferent to each others’ stories and wellbeing?
I refuse to believe it.
If the family we are born into or create for ourselves lets us down, we must look determinedly elsewhere for the support and sense of belonging that every human being needs. But where to start? Here are two suggestions.
CHEAT DISTANCE: EMBRACE YOUR LOVING FAMILY
Do you live far from your loving and supportive extended family? Take time to think carefully about your life choices. Are you far away because you feel you need a certain job or lifestyle, or did circumstances lead you away? Could you possibly find happiness closer to your childhood support network? Moving is a big event, and very disruptive. But a brief disruption now may mean years of strong relationships and happy, confident independence later on.
I am a single mother by choice. When we have kids, most of us expect to have the support of at least one other adult to help us raise them and build a family group. I did not have that luxury, but what I did have was a large and overwhelmingly supportive extended family. In my foolishness and stubborn pride, I lived far from most of them when I first became a mother, pursuing career and riches and finding nothing but stress and depression. When I hit rock bottom, my family stepped in to move me back to my mother’s house and I slowly found myself again in a simpler life where I was once more in charge of my own destiny. I learned the hard way that solid family support is not a crutch, but a vital component of a happy, self-confident individual.
In a sense, my children belong to all of us, thanks to the love and assistance my little family unit has received from the larger family circle. Instead of a father, they have multiple father figures in my dad and brothers; instead of paternal grandparents, they have loving aunts and uncles from several generations on their mother’s side. My kids don’t know yet how lucky they are.
Of course, many separated or divorced parents are forced to live away from their familial support network than they would like, due to the requirements of shared care. This is an extremely difficult position but if this is you, remember: you never know what may happen in the future; or what opportunities may come your way. People are constantly on the move, and this may work in your favour eventually.
IF THE FAMILY WE WERE BORN INTO OR HAVE CREATED LETS US DOWN, WE MUST LOOK ELSEWHERE FOR THE SENSE OF BELONGING THAT EVERY HUMAN BEING NEEDS
FAMILIES ARE MADE OF LOVE, NOT DNA
If your family is far-off, non-existent or non-supportive, create your own. Family is not a matter of blood, but of action – your friends can become your family. A single parent must have adult help, support, encouragement and love. Without relatives to call upon, your friends and friends-to-be must fill the gap.
Making friends is scary and takes effort. You must be patient, accept that not every potential friend will make the distance, put yourself out there, and be a friend, even when it’s difficult or inconvenient. For every ten potential friends you meet, perhaps one will actually become a true friend. But a single true friend is worth more than all the others put together, so persevere.
Go to places where like-minded people go: you have a child, so you already have something in common with a lot of people. Play groups, parks, dance, music, sport lessons, are all great places to meet people, have low-effort conversations and take the first steps to friendship. Push yourself past your embarrassment and invite people over for play dates and coffee. Listen to them, support them, be a friend to them as well as you can. Be open about who you are; you must be honest in order to attract honest, true blue friends.
Drop the people who come into your life and add nothing to it. Drop the ones who will take your time but give none of their own; drop the ones who don’t understand or make efforts to help with your situation. Drop the ones who make you feel judged or less than worthy; these are not friends, just bad habits you need to lose. Families are made of love, remember.
So look for the love.
Instead of distanced, damaging and indifferent families, let’s fill the world with supportive, understanding, loving ones – starting right here with your own.
Consider these concepts of family:
• A hugely busy career woman drove to her friend’s house and accompanied her to the hospital with her sick daughter in the middle of the night, before a massive day at work, and would not hear of leaving her side until the little girl was given the all clear – heading home to change before going straight into work with no sleep.
• A woman whose 6 month old was diagnosed with cancer was overwhelmed with love and practical support from family, friends and strangers who paid her bills, closed up her house, created a support group on Facebook and rallied around her suffering family, taking away every small burden of daily life so that she could concentrate on her daughter.
• The husband of a new mum from a mother’s group heard about a newly single mother struggling to get by, and arranged to outsource admin work to her, to keep money coming in while she got her life back together.
I personally witnessed every one of these stories of true family. Let’s make these our ideal, and recreate the concept of family anew.
Everyone deserves a good family. Everyone, including you.