Family has traditionally referred to both one's family of origin as a child and the family one forms when grown. It has come, however, to be used in other ways, applied to other groups.
There is a colorful framed picture on my kitchen wall which shows cookie cutter figures in a circle surrounding a heart with words on the border that say, A family is a circle of friends who love you. It has been a decade since my best friend, Elaine Thompson, gave it to me in the year that my first marriage ended.
I had lived those words during that dreadful year and they, and the reality they described, saved me. After three decades I was traumatized by the reality that there was no way to continue in that marriage and the family I knew was literally gone. Some families have civilized breakups and continue to be friends, rejoicing in, even sharing, the other members' successes and company. The worst are destructive - The War of the Roses movie comes to mind. When my family ended, it was as if it had never been except that my daughter and I were finally able to build our relationship into one that is stronger than ever before.
Other family circles sustained me. My family of origin was there, still is, although my father died during that dreadful year. His love for me and support of me throughout my life did not die with him and gives me comfort and a belief in myself to this very day. My mother turns 85 on September third and I talk to her every day. I sent a Mother's Day card this year which she read back to me recently. It began, the happiest time of the day comes with hearing my mother's voice. There were too many years when I called all too sporadically and there is no time to lose in making up for lost time.
My sister Ann is a soul mate, my other half. Her family is my extended family and I share their lives and occasions. Just as I had a tragic marriage, she has one as near perfect as I've seen. Her marriage is what we all know is possible and the happy family life that surrounds it encompasses me.
The friends represented in the picture Elaine gave me that Christmas of 1992 are what is called a family of choice. Elaine, for instance, is like a sister to me and I choose her as much as I surely would have chosen Ann if given the right to choose. Mardie DeFeo is another friend that could not mean more to me if we shared family blood. Both of these women were there for me day in and day out in the year when my life changed so dramatically. There were others including Judi Tull, Roger McKinney, and Hal Levenson, men and women who were true friends. I remember Hal saying something that stuck with me, "If you get through this, you'll be okay for the rest of your life." I keep in mind that well-chosen words can mean a great deal to someone in a personal crisis.
A fourth family existed for me then as well as now - my business family. We go through much of what blood families experience - births, deaths, marriages, divorces, triumphs, heartaches. We spend more time together than many blood families and if there is respect, the time spent is just as meaningful. If there isn't respect, the time spent is equally meaningful.
I remarried 5 years ago and have another family now, a stepfamily, with my husband Terry Barnard. There are so many stepfamilies today, sometimes made up of several new marriages for both parents, that it is hard to keep up with who is related to whom. These are families nevertheless.
Not all stepfamilies are harmonious, but I am one of the lucky ones. I really love my three sons, Jeff, Randy and Chris, and they give me love in return. The boys' mother Sandy, my Terry's first wife, is a wonderful lady and we are all friends, even spending part of Christmas Eve with Sandy and her family. My Natalie is the only daughter Terry has had and he goes out of his way to show her that she is special to him. She returns his love.
I know it is easier when stepchildren are grown and on their own to have smooth relationships but it might be easier for young children if parents would help them adjust rather than feed the fire as they so often do. Every person we share one kind of family or another with helps us to find ourselves, shapes how we feel about ourselves, and makes an impact on the quality of our lives.
I know how much I've needed and loved all these families - my family of origin, the family I formed, my circle of friends family, my business family, and my stepfamily. Each had/has great influence on me. One family is not enough to sustain us in these complicated times, we need to accept whatever love and support we get from each. We need to recognize also that it is a two way street.
Jean Loxley-Barnard has been a writer all her life and studied both sociology and psychology at George Washington University where she earned a B.A. Her company, The Shopper, Inc., encompasses all the Loxley-Barnard family publications - The Shopper Magazines and Doctor to Doctor Magazine. She has been in the advertising, consulting and publishing business for 39 years.
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