06 May Family*
For many of us, family comes first. There’s a reason for this cliché. Our sense of intimacy, identity, and community are often deeply entangled with the roots of our family tree. But family, as an idea, isn’t as self-evident as it might suggest. Family is as central and obvious as oxygen—but as difficult to taste and feel too. Almost every career choice you make can lead back to family: from falling into a career because it is a family business, to knowingly choosing the wrong position because the money (and what it would mean for your family) is too good to pass up, or leaving the “perfect job” because an unexpected family emergency forces you to choose your priorities.
Whether we recognize it or not, many of us live under two sometimes-competing models of family life: one your family of origin—i.e. relation by blood, name, or birth—and the other your family of choice which comprises all the sustaining, faithful relationships you’ve cultivated to help you survive and flourish. These models aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can be opaque to us.
The following essay asks us to purposefully and honestly evaluate what exactly family is in each of our lives and to consider what we really mean by the catchall term family. As one of our Six Factors of career choice, clearly and honestly addressing what family means to you is as important as any other introspective leap you can make.
I have a close friend, Richard, who was orphaned as an infant and adopted soon after by a conventional middle-class family in the suburbs of Des Moines. Richard grew up in the 1960s during the zenith of the American empire. An intelligent and sensitive gay child, he struggled with an empty-suit of a father and a bitter and resentful mother who was always indifferent to Richard’s love. While he had all the advantages of his race, gender, and class, he possessed little in the way of familial attachment or affection. Real love was fleeting for him in his family of origin.
At 18 he finally fled Des Moines with a scholarship to the University of Chicago. When he arrived to his northside Chicago neighborhood in the 1980s, he discovered an entire community of similar queer castaways, many of whom, like him, still nursed the literal and figurative scars of their sheltered pasts in the hinterlands. Most were unfortunate victims, wounded by those people they had been taught would protect and love them unconditionally. Nearly everyone had their own stories of the impossible struggle to embracing their true selfhood. Many were not there yet. But here, in the city, they had the ability to choose an intentional community, to choose those who would have power in their lives, to choose those whom they’d now call “family.”
As the years passed, Richard’s life grew rooted into the community in which he lived. This was a long, and sometimes painful process, marked by the AIDS crisis of the 80s and the losses of many friends and homes. It took him many years to build his real home in the city, finding a group of friends whom he could trust and rely on, losing others, and letting go of the many addictions—both physical and emotional—that can drive good people to ruin. Now in his late 50s he’s finally married, settled, and for the first time, living far from the bone of life. This, then, is Richard’s family of choice.
Several years ago, over dinner, he said something revelatory to me. “You know, I didn’t run away to the city to hide from real America or whatever. I came here to build a world. We all did,” Richard explained. “We had to build our version of the world–the one that no one else would make for us.”
The friend group and community in which he lives is a deliberate one. This is to say that he didn’t trip his way into this supportive network of trust and love. He and the many castaways he now calls his family had to build it from scratch, brick-by-brick. Contrary to what some might think of as a sheltered, cloistered, or exclusive community, he and his new family had built a safer world for themselves when they had no other worlds to inhabit. They had to in order to survive. That points to an even greater truth.
he and his new family had built a safer world for themselves when they had no other worlds to inhabit. They had to in order to survive.
Family does not have to be a name for genetic inheritors. It can be an intentional set of attachments and relationships that you’ve formed to support and protect yourself. Your family comprises those people whom you share responsibility, whom you love, and whom you’ve chosen to carry with you through all stages of your life.
Think about the opposite. How many people feel psychologically, emotionally, or physically trapped within a poisonous family environment that does not provide the kind of love and care essential for them to flourish? And how many are still struggling to just recognize this fact? How many of us, if we weren’t related to these people by birth, adoption, or marriage would choose to call these people family? It’s a joke often muttered at the Thanksgiving table, but it’s not necessarily incorrect. Whether we put stock in it or not, our family of origin is arbitrary. Our family of choice need not be.
So, here’s the question: in life, at different stages and different times, we look for love, support, and counsel from those to whom we give power. Sadly, all too often, we discover that those people do not turn out to be very good custodians of the power that they have in our lives. The love we look for and need can live just out of reach; the goal lines of success, recognition, and approval recede every time we approach. Perhaps without malice or intent to do harm, perhaps doing the best that they can with what they’ve got, the family of origin doesn’t seem to be the family of choice.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d consciously choose to give power in my life to someone who always asked “what’d you miss” instead of “great job on the test.” Nor, would I want to count on approval from someone whose definition of career success was measured by bank balances, horsepower, and square footage when my own sense of self is so different. What I mark on my spiritual score card are the degrees by which I’ve eased the suffering of those around me, the amount of time I’ve given to those I love, the problems I’ve helped to solve, and the beauty I’ve put back into the world.
This was the kind of family that Richard explained to me: one in which his repeated attempts at care, love, and concern are met with resentment, anger, and manipulation. If these were friends, he’d have stopped taking their calls years ago. But as “family,” he still feels the lingering elemental forces that ask him to commit to people who have not chosen to commit to him.
If these were friends, he’d have stopped taking their calls years ago. But as “family,” he still feels the lingering elemental forces that ask him to commit to people who have not chosen to commit to him.
In the U.S., we live under the banner of many fictions we take as essential. I’ve spoken before about the deforming mythologies of capitalism, like the Protestant Work Ethic and the Cult of Domesticity, to name a couple. But there are many other fables that unwittingly enter our daydreams and determine how we think about the world. The family, or really the family of origin, is just this kind of story.
It might be hard to fathom today but the very idea of what constitutes a family, and how a family should function, has never been fixed. In ancient Sparta, for example, husbands allowed their wives to bear the children of younger men, children left home at age seven for the military, and fathers under age 30 weren’t allowed to live their families. In premodern Europe, “family” referred to an extended community of kinship and economic affiliations—from husbands to servants—all centered around the working site of the big house.
Even in the relatively brief lifespan of the United States, family life has evolved considerably as well. There is the 18th century model of the settler family who bore a dozen or so children just to help manage the homestead. But there were other, ghastlier models too: like the broken kinship bonds of the slave family whose intimate relationships were always defined through the language of property and not personhood. And there were the family patterns of the many indigenous tribes, such as the Crow, whose families are built around extended kinship bonds of cousins, aunts, and uncles, or the many Dene tribes who built networks of multiple families for sharing resources, or the Southern and Eastern Europe immigrants to America, who congregated in extended kinship groups as their blood relatives escaped poverty, famine, and violence. Fast forward several decades and you’ll find the postwar fable of the nuclear family group whose mythology continues to bear unfair pressure on our American psyche.
What’s true, then, in thinking about the many forms by which “family” has been defined, is that the family has always, from the beginning, been a means toward survival. Before the rise of liberalism and the social democracies that have been built to support human life, the family was the only way one could endure hardship. The unremitting tundra, the threat of starvation, the wilderness, or the specter of war—you needed a family for survival.
So how different is Richard’s story to these histories above? While they may not be a family of origin—relationships to those that raised you—the new family that Richard built was absolutely a means towards survival and flourishing in a world that felt otherwise. This is the real lesson we should all draw: that throughout human history we’ve expanded, reframed, and reimagined the function of family life to give us all the best shot at making it to the next sun rise. While dangers like famine, disease, and military conquest may have diminished (for some) other dangers remain: alcoholism, addiction, abuse, isolation, and ideologies remain unguarded.
Family has always, from the beginning, been a means toward survival.
I cannot begin to tell you how to mend or break the threads that entangle you with your siblings, parents, or kin. But I will assure you that there are at least two kinds of family: the family-of-origin and the family-of-choice. Neither is inherently more valuable; neither is inherently good or bad. It takes tremendous courage to see this point, but it can help liberate us from the constricting fantasies of family life defined in the U.S. Family is who and what you make of it.
We don’t get to choose those who give us life, and we don’t get to choose our earliest (and most powerful) teachers will be. But we do get to choose those with whom we will spend our adulthood. We do get to choose all of those teachers who come along as we move through our lives and our careers. The power of this dynamic is the greatest influence on the choices we make about what to do with our time and energy, about how to measure our successes or failures, about what to do today, tomorrow, or in the unknown future. We measure ourselves against the beliefs of our earliest teachers; we measure ourselves against the demands of our situations; we measure ourselves by the yardstick of our social, familial, ethnic or faith groups. All of these are “family” –either family-of-origin or family-of-choice.
This is the human condition. And, in the end, we can either see ourselves as passive riders on the backs of our family-of-origin or active participants with our family-of-choice. We at Careerprint believe that honoring the one while discovering the other are not mutually exclusive experiences.