Chosen Family and 9 Words for Love

I was thinking about chosen families as I was preparing breakfast for Mazie and Rupert this morning. Mazie is my 3 ½-year-old rescue dog and Rupert is one of her five pups. They are the best of buds and they are, well, family. At some point, I basically said the same thing to Rupert’s folks. “We’re family. You never have to thank me for watching him. This is what we do. Let’s just always assume that we will take care of each other’s when needed.”

Because that’s what families do, right?

Except that’s not always true.  Even if you live near family, some families aren’t close. Or even if they are, individual lives may take precedence. We all know what we want family to be, but that doesn’t mean our family is that.  And even if you do have an emotionally close family, they’re probably not your whole world.

Family, I think, is not the definition we find in dictionaries. It has less to do with relationships than it does with feelings. Ultimately, family is the feeling of belonging, family is the feeling of home.

Best friends, old friends, ride-or-die friends, recovery friends, BFFs… all = family.

About two weeks ago, a friend sent me this brief post from The New York Times.  This friend, by the way, is someone who exclaims “separated at birth” every time we discover yet another way in which are similar, revealing another hard-core preference that is not common. It makes me laugh each time. It also makes me relieved that I don’t have to explain myself.

For my friend Claudia’s birthday this year, I sent her a card that says, “There are two kinds of families: biological and logical.” And inside, “You make sense to me.”

There are the families we are born with and the families we create through marriage and offspring. And then there are the families we choose.

I married a woman before that was legal but we did have a wedding. The officiant was a gay Episcopalian priest, the dear friend with whom we would have a baby, we said. I remember his mother, whom I had not previously met, asking me that day, “So when can I expect a grandchild?” I beamed. We were family.

The baby never happened and after seven years (for other reasons), I left our marriage. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But our bond remains. When we had a gathering for my mother’s 75th birthday, when aunts and uncles and cousins all converged in one place, the only folks who weren’t connected by blood or marriage were PJ and her new wife. Of course they were there. We’re still family.

Patty wasn’t my best friend in high school, but she was always my friend. I confided in her the biggest secret of my life when I was eighteen. And through all the years since, we have consistently stayed in touch and visited when we can. Her daughters call me Aunt Jan and I like to believe I’m their favorite aunt. So yeah, we’re family.

I love my family of origin and I know they love me. That has never not been true. They want and do their best to support me, as I do for them. We know each other so well. And, there is nothing we’ve ever encountered together where we shared a similar response or felt the same way. When my father died, and twenty years later, our mother – we each experienced these deaths differently. And those are the big things. We have good memories, yes, great memories of laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And, what has consistently bound us together is circumstance – being from the same family – more than anything else. And that, in itself, is of great value. But that doesn’t guarantee comfort or intimacy or a sense of belonging.      

Nat was my Latin teacher in high school. Now, he’s… I’m never sure how to describe him. A friend, yes, but more than that. We share so much history. Our lives intersect beyond the two of us. Every week I visit and we eat, lament on politics, share poetry, explore religion, listen to music, sometimes watch a movie, and sometimes just play with Mazie.

Two weeks ago, I canceled. I wasn’t in a good mood. When I called and said, “I prefer to be my best with you” he replied, “Well it wouldn’t be the first time.” And I laughed, spontaneously and with relief. He knows me. No judgment. We are both authentically ourselves. That’s family.

Traditional families often expect us to conform to the family’s norms, if not also to the culture’s. These families aren’t always the places where we’re seen and celebrated for our unique individuality. But with chosen families, it’s different. Our chosen families accept us just as we are.

The critically acclaimed drama, POSE, (now streaming on Hulu) illustrates one way – perhaps the most significant way – that chosen families came into being. Focusing on New York City’s LGBTQ drag scene popular in the African-American and Latin communities during the 1980s and ‘90s, it highlights how “family houses” were born out of marginalized people with a designated “mother” who provided for her “children.” The backdrop to this, of course, is the advent of AIDS.

In the third and final season, I can’t get through an episode without a pile of snotty wet tissues piling up beside me. It hits so close to home. I was there – not in New York but in Chicago, not in drag balls but definitely in the community. I lost more friends than I can count. The people who worked beside me – the founders, directors, and volunteers – are still my family. We will always be bonded through the shared experience of tragedy and loss, tenacity and time, and love.

Which is probably why the idea of chosen families seems to get a good amount of print since 2020 and Covid-19. Bonds are naturally formed between people who share life-changing experiences. Soldiers. Caregivers. Survivors. Covid pods.  

A few years ago, I fell into a deep depression. I hated my job and was crying every day. I missed my dogs in Idaho. I kept thinking that I wanted to be in a committed, romantic relationship again, perhaps even married. I spent many months in anguish before finally realizing I was under the spell of a cultural myth. A spouse doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be alone, or that you’ll be understood, or that you’ll be fulfilled emotionally, or financially stable. Spouses die. Marriages end. People drift apart.

What I wanted was someone who loves me just as I am. Who appreciates me, celebrates me, and still expects me to strive for my best and holds me accountable. Someone who shares my pain when I hurt and who “gets it” without a detailed explanation. A person who understands the bravado that covers my vulnerability and celebrates my persistence and achievements, regardless of my insecurities. Someone I can confide in and turn to in emergencies. Someone who will grow with me and continue to expand. Someone who will always be there. I wanted someone who chooses me, for all the same reasons, knowing I will provide this for them too.

And then, one day, it suddenly occurred to me: I already have this. I have this – times ten. Not just in one person but in many. I have my friends. These friends are my family. And since that day, I’ve been deeply content. I am grateful. I’m secure.

Most of my family lives far away. With some, I talk regularly. Others, a year could go by. Time and distance don’t matter. More than friends or lovers or comrades, more than peeps or tribe or community – these people are my world.

The Ancient Greeks had 8 words for love: Mania – obsessive; Eros – romantic, passionate, and sexual;  Ludus – playful, young, flirtatious, and euphoric; Storge – familial, affectionate, and platonic; Pragma – longstanding and enduring, deepened with time; Philia – deep friendship; Philautia – love of the self; and Agape – unconditional and all-encompassing, Divine.

To these I would add: Maternal – a mother’s love, though not restricted to women. A love that protects creation – their own and others.

What then, is the love of chosen families? Nine words are not enough.

In a world where we now embrace the spectrum of sexuality and question gender norms, it seems appropriate that our definition of family would expand. It needs to be larger. More inclusive. Not defined by blood, sanctioned by law, or qualified with words such as “like” or “chosen.”

I’m done comparing my friends to family. My friends are my family. My family is large.

If you like this post, please click the like button, that would mean a lot to me. And if it resonates, please leave a comment.

Do you have family beyond blood, marriage, and adoption? What makes them family?

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