My mother had four kids but on Mother’s Day, she often got more than four cards. That’s because there were people other than us kids who felt that she was like a mother to them. I have only one niece, but I’ve been called “Auntie Bella” by several little girls. Now that they are all grown up, I still am.
Institutions sometimes try to limit who counts, officially, as family. The Census Bureau, for example, defines family as “two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” No matter. The rest of us don’t have to pay attention. We can, and do, decide for ourselves who counts.
What should we call the people who feel like family to us but do not fit official definitions? It is a question that is becoming increasingly relevant. In the U.S. (and many other places, too), fewer people than ever before are getting married, fewer people are having or raising kids, and family sizes are shrinking (because those who do have kids are having fewer than the generations before them did). The millions of people with no spouse, no kids, and precious few relatives of any sort are creating their own kinds of families.
Scholars have come up with a name for people who feel like family and are treated as family, even though they don’t officially qualify: fictive kin. I hate that term. It makes it sound like the people are make-believe.
“Families We Choose” was the title of an important book by Kath Weston; the subtitle was “Lesbians, Gays, Kinship.” When the book was first published, in 1991, gays and lesbians were more stigmatized than they are now. Too often, they were ostracized even by their own immediate families. In response, they created their own families. They put terms such as “chosen families” and “families of choice” on the map. I like those terms. “Chosen” has a positive, affirming sense about it.
The most thoughtful discussion of the language of non-assigned families comes from Briallen Hopper, in the chapter “Dear Octopus” in her wonderful collection, Hard to Love. “Family of choice,” she said, didn’t quite capture her own experience, “since I have mostly fallen into families rather than chosen them.”
She also considered the term “logical family,” quoting Armistead Maupin, who said that “sooner or later, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.”
Hopper ended up rejecting the term, explaining, “in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic.”
She liked the term “invented family” better, “because it implies the work of creation. It is a family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then all families are invented, even biological ones.”
Briallen Hopper settled on a term I had not heard before, “found family”:
“What I love about found family is that it can accommodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospital visits of any other family – all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quantity time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of the siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason, a found family can know and love you for who you are – not for who you once were, or who you never were.”
More important than the term we use for the people we regard as family are the ways in which they are diminished and devalued. They are ignored or marginalized in laws and policies, in workplaces, in academic research, and in our everyday lives. That needs to change, and as these people become increasingly important in our lives, I think it will.