When I was a child my family held its own private holiday. My parents celebrated “family day” to mark the day that they adopted my brother and I, making their family complete. We got the day off school and cake to celebrate it. It was effective; I was thrilled to be adopted.
The official Family Day coming soon to families across Ontario — the new statutory holiday is Mon, Feb 18 — got me thinking about how family means something different to almost everyone.
When I came out as queer I immediately understood the idea of the chosen family — those friends and lovers who defined our lives but had no official recognition. The division was clear. Then there was your biological family who disapproved of you but were your legal next of kin. Then there was your lover of 10 years, who was officially nothing more than your friend. In those days lovers wouldn’t even get a half-share of the cutlery if you dropped dead and your family swooped in to collect the remains.
The chosen family was the one we named because no one else did. But the division between biological and chosen family has become blurry, partly because queers have made legal progress that has been as profound as it is incomplete. My family is still a blend of chosen and biological ties, official and unofficial relationships. I have a four-year-old daughter who lives with her dads. My wife has a six-week-old son who lives with us and I’m carrying another child to add to our family. Some of these choices are recognized, some are not.
More than anything, though, I’ve come to realize that all family is chosen to some degree. I never realized how many choices went into the family I grew up in because, as a child, these constellations seem eternal and unmoving. As an adult it’s more clear. I’ve chosen my wife and we’ve agreed to raise each other’s children as our own. I chose to bear children and portion out the raising of them to adults around me that became part of my family. Some choices may be invisible because they’re what society expects of us, some are questionable because they don’t meet people’s ideas about families, but they are all choices.
By society’s standards I haven’t moved steadily into the ranks of family-making. By having a four-year-old daughter who mostly lives with her dads I’ve been seen to be sitting on the fence of belonging or not belonging to the parenting club. Oddly enough that transition has been completed by the birth of my wife’s child, a child I didn’t bear and have no plans to adopt. Marital responsibilities, however, are considered strong enough that my parental role can be legally assumed. By contrast, my biological daughter is so far legally removed from my wife that it’s a leap of faith and innocence that she calls her Mommy. Fortunately for us children make these leaps with graceful ease.
That faith reminds me what I learned in my heart years ago. As much as the law can provide power and responsibility, the real test of our families comes through choices and actions. We all know who our family is — the people who are never too far away to reach. The people who keep showing up when we need them and sometimes when we aren’t expecting them. It’s a mutual choice to lay claim to each other.
When my friends come over I don’t hesitate to refer to them as the aunties and uncles of our children. If I, the biologically unrelated mom, can claim my wife’s child as my son, why should I have reservations about assigning relative status to anyone else who plans to stick around? Then there are the friends who have quietly disappeared because, apparently, people who have children can’t be friends with people who don’t. We’re cut off on our own to discuss diapers and feeding schedules as if we never have any other thoughts in our heads. The chosen gay family can, on occasion, disown you for being a breeder.
The other side of that transition is membership in the parent club, an unofficial family of its own with intense critiques and connections. These are the strangers who lean across restaurant tables to commiserate about baby wipes or car seat issues. Sometimes the intrusion is awkward, especially on the hetero-gay meeting ground when two dads are told their screaming baby needs her mother or two moms are repeatedly asked which one is the real mother.
But sometimes it’s a real connection that’s helpfully based on more experience than you can imagine, like when one woman listened to my plans for a horde of closely spaced children and put her hand on my arm.
“Toddler. Leashes,” she said, and, like a thunderclap, I had a vision of my future.
Family is really all about who shows up for you. I chose to reestablish contact with my wayward parents and let them know I was getting married. I didn’t expect them to attend, but one of the niceties of being part of a family is extending the invitation. Then they have to decide whether to attend. To my surprise my parents came to my wedding and politely applauded as I kissed a girl in front of them. Since they separated more than 20 years ago they’ve each found new partners who have been covert, overt and eventually official in status so perhaps they’ve learned a bit about chosen family. Or perhaps, since they adopted my brother and me, they’ve known about it all along and I’ve simply had to rediscover the off-label, homo application of the concept for myself.
In return I send Christmas cards to my father and his lady friend. I fill out hospital forms with a lot of ink in the margins. My daughter has agreed to be my son’s big sister and take on all the tasks that involves — like teaching him about toilets and rain puddles and, later on I’m sure, leading him into mischief. Like my brother and me, they aren’t biologically related at all and will be left to work out their relationship on their own terms. I look at the biological daughter I don’t live with and the nonbiological son that I do live with and make my choices. Like my parents, like my wife, like everyone in my family, I’ll just keep showing up.