Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Defining Family

Written by Ms. Berman

The holidays are approaching, a time that naturally causes most of us to reflect upon our family life.  For many, the model family that has only been viewed from afar is nowhere close to the reality in which a person is actually living.  Disappointment abounds as it starts to feel as if everyone else has it better than you.  "Why me?" and  "Why can't my family be normal?" are sentences that I often hear from students at this time of year.  The memories of these conversations are vivid, even back to my very first student who I met in 1987 in the hallway of Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.  Twenty eight years old, no teaching credential, and scared beyond belief, I was setting up my classroom the day before the students were scheduled to arrive.  C. was wandering around the school, trying to find each of her classrooms before school began.  "You're not allowed to be on campus, " I scolded her.  I would show her that I could be tough.  It was not her words that stood out so clearly, but the look in her eyes that told me a story.  This child was lost.  It was not just a classroom that she was looking for, but a home.  How I picked up on that message during our momentary encounter is the unexplainable magic of the teacher-student connection.  Anyway, as I grew to know C. during my challenging first year of teaching, I learned what a brilliant, perceptive, and sensitive young woman I had come to mentor.  I had an infant at home at the time and found that rather than prying into her personal problems, it was more comfortable for me to share the anecdotes of my family life with her.  Family.  I was sharing my definition of family with her, without even realizing it... no longer merely a teacher of Science, but a teacher of life.  Other teachers at the school advocated for C. as well, recognizing her potential far sooner than she did.  I receive emails from C. periodically, with prideful updates and pictures of her husband and three adorable children.  Although she has been employed as a middle school Science teacher, at present she chooses to stay home during the day with her children and works as a Chemistry tutor in the evenings.  Reflecting back on high school as an adult, C. has the following to share with my students:
What I realized after talking to you, the school counselor and my close friends, was that you all liked me just the same.  That I was respected, admired, and loved for who I was.  This was pivotal because for the first time, I began to view myself as independent from the parents who raised me.  That their flaws, shortcomings, and problems did not piggy back to me.  It took years for me to process this, but it was when I realized that if I put my mind to it, I could be whomever I wanted to be.  Things I learned from growing up in a tumultuous home:  "It may not be my fault, but it was my problem."   It was up to me to solve the problems within my control, and leave the other problems alone.  "Things may not be easy, but they will get better."  Always got to see that light at the end of the tunnel.   

As for family, I still find myself observing other families.  I really don't have a good definition or foundation from my own experiences. I listen attentively to other mothers talk about raising their children.  I take away what seems to fit for us.  But the biggest thing I realize is that there are so many different ways to raise a family, and not one right way.   
C. (c/o 1990)

In response to those of you asking, "Why me?" C. has created the life for herself that she could only dream of in high school... and if you stay focused, you will, too. 


  1. Family ... is it defined by biology...for some it is. For me I have a few that are biologically related and my "Chosen Family". I believe that blood may tie you together but DNA does not make a family!

    A family comes in many shapes, sizes and packages. My "Chosen Family" is made up of many people of many ages. Unconditional love and respect....the people that fill my heart until it is over flowing. They are the ones that I cry with, laugh with and share my life with. We are each other's support systems in every way.

    Family is defined differently for each of us. I am so lucky and blessed to have my "Chosen Family" .... they are my daily gift in life ~

  2. Sometimes, biological relations, no matter who they are or how well meaning they think they are, can be the most damaging. Being able to choose who you call family, whether they be biological or not, is what everybody gets to do. Sometimes, that means that a biological relation is taken out of your chosen family because of something they have done, or, if you know before hand, will do. Despite the saying 'blood is thicker than water', that may be true. But you can still wash your hands of them, cause blood is mostly water in the first place

  3. After I graduated from high school, I took off to college, vowing to never speak to my family again. But, there was a part of me that still wanted to believe in them. There was a part of me that admitted I had a distorted understanding of family, but I yearned with every bit of me to have the opportunity to experience family. So, every so often I would reply to an email or answered the phone when I saw my brothers’ name on the caller ID. After about 5 years, I was convinced to come home.
    The first year to maybe a year and half back in San Diego was great! My family wasn’t perfect, but I could accept them for who they were individually. And, they finally got to meet their little sister. Throughout my life, I managed to keep them at arm’s length. It was a coping mechanism, so that I could succeed. I once told one of my brothers that I wanted to be more than just my last name. My fmaily never knew what I was interested in or even if I knew how to drive. I remember one of my brothers crying when I told him how our mother’s death had affected me. “I never knew,” he said. “I never saw you cry. You were so strong and then you just disappeared.”
    My parents were very “religious” and when I told my biological mother back in the day that I didn’t believe in God, she said that I would come back home (to church) when I was ready… And, I was ready, but… I was still a lesbian. So, I tried out the “gay church” right there in San Diego. In an ironic twist, my brothers started stepping into churches too. I never tried to turn them into believers, but they knew I was back. One by one, they entered and I got excited for them until they said things like, “Shaila, you know you’re going to hell, right?”
    Each time was like a hard blow to the heart until I saw myself keeping them at an arm’s length again. It was hard for me to understand how we had gotten to this point again. My homosexuality was hardly an issue for most of my life and now, I was being insulted by some a$$hole who had spent three Sundays at a megachurch, preaching the same lies my biological father threatened us with. I was baffled. I related with the pain all the suicidal LGBTQ teens were feeling. I felt violated when they used religion to challenge my faith and put me down.
    In another ironic twist of events, they didn’t ostracize me the way it goes for so many LGBTQ youth. I ostracized them. (There’s more to this story. It wasn’t just a religion issue.) I realized that I had created brothers and sisters outside of them. For the first time, I had a father and mother(s) that I full-heartedly trusted. We stay connected. We send cards on birthdays. We negotiate where we are going for the holidays. We get on each other’s nerves. And, most importantly, we never forget to say, “I love you.”

  4. I think that family are those areound you who you love. Not just your legal guardians you might live with, biological or not, but those you feel most comfortable around and with. One of our best family friends I consider a third mother to me, including my aunt and my biological mom. Her daughter and I address eachother as pretend sisters or sometimes just sisters. I live with my cousins and aunt and uncle, but I call them mom and dad, sister and brother. We also have a coulple of pretend aunts, but it never seems that they're pretend. We also have a pretend grandma, and she's just like anyother grandma weather or not we are related by blood.