I’ve always found the concept of families odd. But then, families are based on the concept of procreation and I’ve found that odd, too.
Not a state-approved position for someone working in mental health and mostly with families, perhaps. However, the more intimately I work with other people’s families, the more I realize that the idea of a group of people, being forced to live together, and participate in a collective process of forced socialization, based upon common descent (a euphemism for the accident of birth) is strange and odd and, well— ethically and morally murky.
Of course, oddness is far more easily apparent to the gaze of an outsider, and that may be why other people’s families seem strange and odd and dysfunctional whereas one’s own appears reasonably sane by contrast. Sanity, like beauty, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder and fades with progressive degrees of separation.
But then again, mental health work maybe where the family (of origin and of procreation) bears the most scrutiny. And what collective organ in society ever acquitted itself well on prolonged and public scrutiny? Democracy certainly didn’t. What hope does a smaller unit such as the family have?
But let’s examine the whys, first.
Why create a family? For the purpose of social insurance. Why raise children born to you? Why endure the chain-gang that is siblinghood? Why make another person’s life, another person’s achievement, the core aim of your own life? Why give up your career, and ambitions, and wild, clawing desires to care for another when they become sick?
In the hope that we pile enough social and moral obligations on other people in our vicinity that they feel obliged to care for us when we ail and mourn for us when we die. Of course, this manner of social insurance comes with its own nature of payment, in the form of the festering, broiling resentments we then bear each other, for placing, and, in turn, being placed under a morass of obligations.
If this is a social experiment, and if happiness and success (again, state-sanctioned) are it’s objectives, it is clearly not a very well designed one.
I work in dementia care, where we get to peer down the wrong end of the periscope and look at half a century of poorly concealed resentments play out when someone is asked to resign themselves to caring for a person with a degenerative disorder — for no other reason than an accident of birth, followed by a slow, incremental accumulation of obligations and debts. Not a good look on either the therapist prescribing family-based care or on the hapless family who can spy no exit. If they could, they would be out of this situation in a thrice. Heck, if I could, I’d help them escape this long, slow erosion, too.
Which then makes me think. Perhaps it isn’t the act of forming a social collective that is wrong. Homo sapiens are clearly social animals and thrive, nay, flourish in groups. The long COVID-19 (and it’s actually acceptable to say that right now) has clearly put our lone wolf “I’m too hip to need anyone” posturing to an end. We clearly need each other. We positively bask in the idea of belonging to and possessing other people.
But, by that definition, collectives in jails and concentration camps should be happy places. They might be, for some, for all that I know to speak of. But the idea of those large social collectives scares us. The idea of having our liberty taken away, of being subject to rules and laws outside of our making, and to associate with people in the absence of choice — is terrifying.
It might be then, that the element of choice in forming our own personal social collectives, or the absence of such a choice maybe what is most important in defining our contentment. The luxury of choosing whom you live with, who you love, whom you bunker down and share a meal with — that might be the greatest luxury of all, riches vastly to be coveted.
Jones-Wild spoke of families of choice as encompassing all the relationships that one chooses to be in, whether inherited or formed, and which are maintained voluntarily. The people we are with because we want to be with them. The prototypical relationship that we build our families of choice around is the least structured, the least defined ones — friendships — the archetypal relationships of choice.
The presence of a choice, and further, the recognition and validation of these choices may not make our lives any easier or our social obligations any less overwhelming. They are, however, one would hope, less likely to feel like a noose and more of an overtight collar, which one may, in true Dickensian fashion, pop a button off of, after a too heavy meal.
They might not prevent the people in our lives from developing and struggling with degenerative diseases, but they might make the long, slow walk into the night that families make with them, less of a nightmare. The knowledge that it is a choice, to care for someone, and that one may choose to stop if one so desires.
The other, sheer, indescribable beauty of one’s family of choice, is knowing that the people who are with us, are with us because they want to be, and vice versa. That luxury of choice makes this slice of companionship all the more fulfilling. The slice may not age well, the choices may change, but while they lasted, they lasted because people wanted them to.
And if there is anything I would want the world to cherish this overwrought month, that we fixate on love in, it would be finding and celebrating our families of choice. For as long as we have them.