Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of family and what family means in our modern world and in the United States in particular. This questioning arises most naturally when the way I have chosen to live, how I have given birth to and am raising my child and what I believe and hope for seems, at times, radically different or even diametrically opposed to the vast majority of the people around me and society at large. What does family mean to a first generation East Indian who grew up in rural Kansas but now lives outside a major city? What does family mean to a homebirth, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, EC-practicing mama?
We are born into our families, rather than choosing them, as we might our friends, based on similar personalities, interests or belief systems. Every family is different, but each family must navigate the waters of relationship. More than ever, now that I have my daughter, I believe that family is created intentionally. This is clear even from the fact that some children are given up for adoption; in those cases, family is intentionally not created at birth for whatever reason but, hopefully, is created with great intent later in life.
What does it mean to create family? As a mother of a one-year old whose parenting choices alone often relegate her to minorities within minorities of society, I find myself thinking about this often. In India, both of my parents had time in their lives where they lived in a more universally traditional way, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and distant relatives all packed in under one roof in a family compound, so to speak. Understandably, family was whoever lived in the “house.” Though extensive, it was indeed immediate family, and, by the nature of life, often included neighbors or other non-blood relatives. Stories of huge groups of children and adults literally gathered around light in the darkness listening to stories made up on the whim of my own grandfather or singing bhajans led by my mother’s cousin’s cousin’s wife, stories that seem out of some version of a book called Laura Ingalls Wilder Goes to India where everyone’s working by candlelight and going hungry.
Here in the United States at this time, immediate family often means the parent(s) and child(ren). What a fraction of the people that family once was! Those few people surely would spend all their time together, more than their counterparts of the past, would they not? No! It somehow means fewer people to share the load of living. Granted, the sea of societal structures and self-destructive sloganism brutally bombard these tiny rafts of familial relationship. In fact, many of us feel ourselves floating alone through the trials of life. What happened to family?
Creating family requires conscious intention. How do I do this when my small, immediate family of four is strewn across three states and thousands of miles? Then again, today’s technology allows me to blog, Skype, Facebook, email, scan, fax, and phone my child’s grandparents as well as mail them things next day or even same day! My mother raised me in Kansas while my Indian grandparents, eight times more distant had to have someone go down the block to the corner store to get on the phone call list so they could call us. Logic and reason suggest that creating loving and close family bonds with access so many methods of connection should be relatively easy, a matter of effort rather than intention.
Family for me has felt both immediate and elusive. Barriers of culture, communication, emotion, and perception pop up to block connections I intend to make. Hurt feelings and confusion abound, but perhaps this is part of my parents having raised me in a country and culture with such opposing values to the ones of their own upbringing. Respect, seeming simple and singular in definition, somehow contradictorily means hearing out ideas and agreeing to disagree versus doing whatever I say or letting me do whatever I want in the face of disagreement. Vertical and horizontal hierarchies create very different feelings of family.
For me, creating family for my daughter has meant that I have intentionally explored and chosen to implement a number of independent ideas that work together cooperatively to create a community around my little raft of a family despite differences and difficulties with my immediate family. Indeed, creating a family, even within the intimacy of our three-piece immediate family, requires all my intention and spirit when I find myself having to give the very energy I would devote to creating family with my loving husband, who is a wonderful father to my precious daughter, while I am, essentially, a mother to other people’s children. In the environment and structure of this country and culture, driven by time and money, it is actually more efficient for me to think about Living Family rather than creating family.
Living Family means many things to me, but all help me stay focused on the goal of creating a sea of family and a community in which to live and ideally thrive. Living Family means:
- being in and living from the present moment
- creating structures and routines that support family bonds
- expanding the limits of family to other families that support the family life I intend to create ….. in essence, creating a community of others who want to consciously create family in a vein similar to ours
- make a living…as opposed to making “it,” whatever “it” is…in a way that allows my “selves” to not be so separate from each other and/or from family
- living our family life in such a way that allows us, others as well as the natural world to live and thrive while being mindful of resources and relationships
Having this goal feels lofty to me. It requires that I shift my whole focus and think broadly and creatively. It also feels vital, however, if I want to reach any semblance of traditional family connections and experiences of shared living. My daughter has just turned one. Now, with this intention, we begin the journey towards a Living Family….