What is a Family? Do You Have to Share DNA?

How was your Thanksgiving? Was it as it as bad as you expected? You know if you go in expecting to be miserable, you will be.

I had a good time. Church in the morning, then dinner at a friend’s house. Folks around the table included two male neighbors who have no family nearby, my friend’s husband and his mother, and their three teenage foster children. Plus Evergreen the cat and Buddy the dog. It was great. I think we all felt loved and welcome, even though we didn’t bring a traditional “family.” The food, to which everyone contributed, was fabulous, too.

The friends who hosted the gathering have their own children and grandchildren, but they live far away, and they have always collected the strays like me for the holidays. I already have an invitation for Christmas, although I am hoping to round up some strays of my own for a “no one alone” celebration.

That might be delayed because I got sick the day after Thanksgiving. I’m coughing and sniffling as I type this. Yes, it’s Covid, despite all the vaccinations. I have to isolate myself, so I might not have time to get anything organized before this Christmas, which is, yikes, less than a month away.

Meanwhile, what is a family? That was the subject of a recent article at “Stephanomics” by Bloomberg columnist Stephanie Flanders. The definition of family is changing, at least in the United States, she says. The most recent figures show 44 percent of Americans age 18-49 don’t have children now and probably never will have. The working age population has fallen for the third year in a row.

What’s going on? Money is a big factor. The Brookings Institution says it now costs more than $300,000 to raise a child in the U.S. and that doesn’t include college. The cost of a home these days is prohibitive. Also, people spend more years getting their education and building their careers, leaving fewer years to have children. Some see their childless peers enjoying their freedom and decide to follow suit. There are all kinds of reasons why Americans are having fewer children, and it raises concerns about who will do the jobs and keep Social Security going in the future.

The article notes that while the U.S. is leaning hard in the no-kids direction, other countries are trending the other way. In the Philippines, for example, they are having a baby boom.

But let’s go back to that question of what is a family. Family Story, a think tank in Washington D.C. which is studying the evolution of families, says the definition of family is moving toward chosen families. Biological families often live far apart, and travel is difficult. They may be split up and scattered by divorce. That’s certainly the case for me. We reach out to friends from work, church, or the community for everything from Thanksgiving dinner to emergency rides to the hospital (thank you, Teresa) to a jug of orange juice when you can’t get to the store (thank you, Martha). Often, we feel more at home with the people we see every day or every week than with our families whom we see only a couple times a year. And that’s okay. We can call or Zoom with our bio families and eat pumpkin pie with our chosen families and have the best of both worlds. Right?

Is anyone feeling guilty? Okay, I am a little. I feel like I should reach out more to my family, but they are far away in ways beyond just geography. Know what I mean?

I spent the last couple months watching every episode of “Friends” on HBO Max. Don’t judge. That show comforts me. Perhaps it is not realistic, but the six friends get together for every holiday and
major event. They all have families but choose to be with their friends instead. Do you have people like that? I don’t, but I’m working on it.

Consider the vision of family described on the Family Story website:

We envision a world in which any individuals bonded by love, support, or care for each other, who by choice or circumstance are interdependent, can be recognized as family; a world which elevates the strengths and ingenuity of all types of families rather than focusing on their perceived deficits; a world where we are served by inclusive policies and in which we are able to form and re-form families–free from judgment and discrimination.”

What is a family? When I was married to my first husband, I argued that my husband and I and our dog and cat were a family. My in-laws didn’t buy it. For them, a family had to have children, but for me, it was true. Are Annie and I a family? Not a traditional one, but yes, we are, even if she can’t drive to the store for OJ. Did the group gathered around my friend Sandy’s table on Thanksgiving constitute a family? It sure felt like it.

I feel as if I have several families, including the one I was born into, my church family, my music family, my writer family, my neighborhood family, and yes, my childless family. I am grateful for every one of them. When I get to feeling alone, I need someone to remind me to just pick up the phone.

Is it okay to spend the holidays with a chosen family rather than your biological one? If a large percentage of the population never marry or have children, thus never forming traditional families, what does the future look like?

What are your thoughts about all this? How was our Thanksgiving? What will you do different for Christmas? I welcome your comments.

Photo by cottonbro studios on Pexels.com


3 thoughts on “What is a Family? Do You Have to Share DNA?

  1. Ahhh… Family. What a complicated concept.

    My Thanksgiving was fine. It was small and simple this year. Just me and my boyfriend. We celebrated with his young adult kids, parents, and sisters at the beginning of the month. His family is very nice to me, and I love it. (It’s a new experience for me. I didn’t have positive relationships with previous boyfriends’ families or my in-laws when I was married.) I’m thinking about going to my aunt’s in another state to celebrate next year because I haven’t seen two of my aunts in many years.

    I will be working over Christmas, which is what I prefer. I will get to see my parents, sisters, niece, nephew, and cousins the weekend before, and I’m thankful we all plan to get together. It’s stressful for me for several different reasons, but I still love the family I was born into.

    I’m working on building a chosen family where I live. It takes a long time, especially as an adult. I like to daydream about what my community will look like in ten years. It doesn’t have to be big, but I’d like to know a couple of people in my small town that I can meet for a meal, call for a ride if I need it, or help them with a meal or a ride if they need it.


  2. I’m glad you have so many “family” groups to support you. I think we should all spend holidays with whoever we want to spend them with – whether they are family, friends, neighbours, or simply ourselves, for a bit of peace and quiet. This year we’re going it alone – for the first time in a long time. It might be lonely, but it will be peaceful and happy too.


  3. I do have a tendency to think, “poor me”. I realize that most times I let the people with children take the lead because they have so many other stresses and obligations. I was burned once – and it profoundly hurt – so I tend to hang back and wait.

    Unfortunately I’ve developed the habit of being resentful. The last couple of years I’ve been working on this with little success. This past year in particular I’ve given up and I’ve just allowed myself to feel all the hurt and anger. Privately. People don’t know it but I’m a mess – always up and down. This has helped. I’ve tried therapy and it helped. I’ve even closed myself off a bit. Okay, a lot. For a people pleaser like me – I’m feeling real selfish some days but it’s helping me to see that my life matters too.

    I had a nice Thanksgiving. I worked harder to make conversation and my family gathering was fun. I found success at my in-law’s. I made honest efforts and then felt justified to sit in the corner after I’d made my rounds. It’s hard to connect with alcoholics. If you talk to them before their buzz kicks in – they are uncomfortable. If you talk to them a few drinks too late – I am uncomfortable. However, the children and teens in this family are awesome fun and I especially enjoyed chatting with the teenage girls who seem to enjoy my attention.

    Like Phoenix, I’m slowly building a chosen family. And that’s helping. I won’t always feel this way. But the concern is that if I’m not careful I will sink lower. So I will struggle now – to make sure that doesn’t happen.

    I hope you are feeling better soon, Sue. That Covid can linger and blast your energy. Please take care!


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