I Chose the Family I Need, Not the One I’m Born To

Like many people who live in rural areas, I grew up working on my family farm. Every summer for ten years, I worked as a farmhand with my cousin Laurel, for my aunt and uncle who owned the farm, and had daily afternoon lemonade breaks with my Grandma Caroline. It was the best summer job I could’ve ever asked for: I got to hang out with people that I love and genuinely enjoy spending time with. The best part of the job was quality time with Grandma. My late Grandma Caroline was a legendary badass. She grew up farming and was tougher than an iron railroad spike. As resilient and strong as she was, she always saw the best in people and had a rebellious attitude. When we threw her an 85th birthday party, we rented a local hall for it. She wanted to bring some bottles of alcohol that she had sitting in her liquor cabinet but the liquor license we obtained for the hall stated that we weren’t allowed to bring in previously opened bottles We told her the restrictions of the liquor license and she said “Well, I’m 85 and I haven’t been to jail yet. They can arrest me.” There really isn’t much more objecting you can do when your Grandma says something like that.

Even though I’ve always called Caroline “Grandma,” the truth is that I’m not related to her in any way. I’m not blood-related to any of my “farm family.” They are all just people from the community that I grew up in and have always treated me like family. I’ve referred to them as my cousins and uncles and Grandma for years because that’s what they felt like to me. I guess I started calling them my family when I was young and never stopped. I hesitate to refer to them as just “friends” because I’ve known them my entire life and we spend big life events together, just like most families do. We spend Christmases together, weddings, Thanksgivings, and graduations. My father left when I was a child and my mother was without a partner, so we started joining a family in our community for traditional family events. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just something we fell into.

I started getting attached to these people when I was younger because I’ve always struggled to find things in common with half of my biological family. I’ve often wondered if other people from split families feel this way — ever since my dad left, I’ve felt a complete disconnect from his family. He didn’t even move that far away, only an hour’s drive. I saw him and his family often enough while I was growing up, it’s not like I only saw them every couple years. I can’t blame this feeling of disconnect on the divorce though– I never had anything to talk about with his family in the first place. We’ve never had anything in common besides that small amount of DNA in which we share. The fact that we don’t have any similar interests or values makes it really hard to form a relationship with them. I was raised farming and playing sports and they all lived in the city and didn’t care for athletics. We are from different household incomes, and thus have different leisure activities. You can only talk about the weather at Thanksgiving for so many years in a row before absolutely hating the holidays.. From a very young age we are told that you have to love people because they are family. At 25, I think I am finally ready to say that that is a load of bullshit.

I’m not saying that you can’t love people that you have nothing in common with. Differences make us interesting and endearing, but I feel like there are issues if I struggle to have a meaningful conversation with my father’s brother. We just have nothing to discuss. He can ask me about my life and can feign interest in my graduate studies, and I can ask about his life and pretend that I give a damn about their last vacation. I doubt very much that this interaction is fun or meaningful for either of us. So why do we do it? Why do we expend so much effort faking surface level relationships with people that we feel no ties to?

Beyond having no interests in common, I have a hard time forming relationships with my father’s family because of our differing values.  This might be all in my head, but I’ve always felt that they couldn’t accept me for who I am. Perhaps we just have different values from growing up in an urban area and a rural area. I was raised to treat everyone with kindness and help others. I’ve always found my father’s family to be critical of anything that they don’t understand, like having an open mind isn’t an option. Which becomes rough when it is a personal decision that my or one of my siblings makes that they don’t agree with, and make that disagreement loudly known.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one that feels this way and that many people find that their blood-related family doesn’t always treat them the best. Sometimes family members like to make you feel bad about your life choices or give you lectures on how you should spend your time. Sometimes they try to guilt trip you for spending more time with your chosen family than them. For some reason, certain people feel that they have a license to criticise your decisions because they are family. They feel like it is okay for them to tell you that you really need to drive to the city more often to spend time with them and how you aren’t acting like a member of the family. Like the word “family” is a get-out-of-jail-free card for poor behavior. The ironic thing is, it is the people that I consider family but am not actually related to that have always treated me the best. Perhaps it’s because of that old standard that you have to give your blood relations unconditional love because that is what family is. While I appreciate the romantic sentiment that that idea entails, in my opinion it is crap. All it does is provide blood-relations with a license to treat you without consideration because you “have to love them anyways.” I cannot buy into the idea that you can get away with treating anyone without empathy, even if they are your relations. Grandma had zero tolerance for people treating her girls poorly. She was a very compassionate woman and would look for the best in people, but she didn’t put up with people mistreating her loved ones. If I went to her when I was upset because someone treated me without consideration, she would always say that I don’t need that person in my life.

As I’ve grown into a mini-adult, I’ve been having a hard time trying to understand why people expend so much effort to maintaining relationships that do not fulfill them, or why I should. Do we keep these relationships out of obligation? To keep up appearances? As a favor to our parents? These shallow relationships have always felt cheap to me. I’m tired of spending the limited free time I have when I venture home to see my loved ones driving around everywhere to spend evenings here and there with people that I find it hard to have a conversation with. I know that sounds selfish and that I only want to spend my time having fun, but I have a hard time making an effort to spend time with people that only criticise myself or my siblings. I know that I should just brush it all off, as we’ve been doing for years. It just seems like more of a burden lately. Like turning a deaf ear has gotten heavier and harder to do. Forcing conversation and grinning through their snide comments on how I never join the family for events because I am always busy — the things we do to maintain a relationship out of obligation — have gotten harder to do in recent years.

Yet my Grandma Caroline had unconditional love for someone who wasn’t even related to her. She never complained if I was too busy to stop in and see her during my breaks from university but was always happy to see me when I did have the time. She was so incredibly grateful for every little thing that we did for her — she was delighted to see us and understood if we were busy or just needed a night off to sleep. She treated me like a human being, not like she had any votes in how my life turned out. Instead, she was my loudest cheerleader for whichever road I took. My father’s family on the other hand, made my sister cry a week before her wedding because they were upset that she wasn’t keeping with some absurd tradition that apparently was very important to them but I can’t even remember what it was. Why does being blood-related to someone make them feel that they have a vote in your life? That they have some sort of control over what you do?

The truth is that I just don’t have a lot of spare effort to spread around these days. A limited number of fucks to give, if you will. I’m your average two degree millennial that is trying to get her career off the ground i.e. interning for free and waitressing everyday that is not spent at my internship in order to pay rent. I’ve always lived in the economical bracket in which I’ve had to work for everything I have, and work multiple jobs at a time in order to obtain it. It takes so much effort to maintain these relationships in which I see them at a few holiday parties a year and then do not interact with them at all in the meantime. I have to maintain surface level relationships with co-workers, interviewers, patrons at work, and landlords everyday of my life just to get by. I have to brush it off whenever someone makes a rude remark to me, shake off every criticism, and push through every degrading task I am given, all in an attempt to start my career. I just don’t feel that I have the energy anymore to maintain relationships with family that feel like work. Not wanting to allocate my spare time to people that don’t enrich my life may be a spoiled and self-centered sentiment, but I’m finding that a hard thing to care about anymore.

The way I see it, it is one thing to love your relations unconditionally, but it’s another thing entirely to give love freely to people that you have no ties to. That feels like a more pure kind of love to me. If people can choose significant others to marry and spend their life with, essentially choosing to form a family with that person, why can’t I choose my own family as well? That’s the question I keep returning to. Is it acceptable to form my own family in order to obtain the love and support that I desire, even though it doesn’t involve a marriage? And on that same train of thought, can I dissociate from people that do not contribute to my mental health, even if I was born into their biological family? If I can’t see eye-to-eye with some of my relations and we can’t get along and be compassionate towards one another, is it okay to stop having a shallow, obligation induced relationship with them?

My definition of family will probably be constantly evolving. All I am saying is that I will no longer let myself feel guilty for not feeling attached to people that I share DNA with. And I will definitely not let anyone make me feel guilty for spending so much time with my chosen family over my biological family. I believe, or at least I want to believe, that you are perfectly entitled to choose a family that supports you in the way that you need to be supported. One where your relationships come easy and don’t feel strained. I never questioned Grandma Caroline and my relationship because she didn’t have any obligation to love or be kind to me. She didn’t have to care about me at all, she could have just treated me like an employee. Instead she treated me like I was the most special person in the world, for no reason at all. She taught me that love is freely given, and that being kind to people costs you nothing. Being biologically related to someone does not excuse treating them poorly. For the woman who didn’t have to love me, the one that changed my definition of family forever, I am going to stop maintaining relationships that do not enrich my life.

 

(Photo credit We Heart It, Literally Darling)

Alanna McMullen

Alanna McMullen

Alanna is a fan of hyperbole and adding gin to her tea. She holds a Masters of Publishing and waitresses while trying to make it in the book publishing world. Though she grew up on a farm in southern Alberta, she has since moved to the “New York” of Canada (Toronto) to pursue a career in publishing. A retired college athlete, she now spends her time avoiding cooking and organizes her bookshelf obsessively. Most days she is torn between prancing around Toronto like Carrie Bradshaw and hiding in her apartment to rewatch FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS for the 87th time. Though she is often begged by her family and boyfriend to stop being so dramatic, she doesn't plan on it anytime soon.
Alanna McMullen

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