Approaching eighteen years ago, my wife and I were married over the July 4th holiday weekend in Southern California. Many made a vacation of it and we were fortunate to be surrounded by a large number of family and friends. Our parents’ “chosen family” – their collection of close friends – was also well-represented. I took note.
Both sets of our parents shared a similar life’s journey, moving from the Rust Belt – a mix of Pennsylvania and upper state New York – to California, with stops along the way. With each life chapter they picked up friends. From childhood, college, the military, work, neighbors, kids’ school, volunteering, church and more. Some of these friendships became as deep as blood lines. They became chosen family. The people you would choose as family if you could. Chosen family was necessary because their extended family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles – were thousands of miles away.
In the cover article of the March issue of The Atlantic, The Nuclear Family was a Mistake, the author, David Brooks, outlines a narrative of family formation from the early days of our country to the present. In short, when our society was agrarian, our families were large – 8 or 9 kids was not uncommon – and extended family lived close by. Kids and family were necessary for the economic engine of farming. With industrialization, young people pursued economic opportunity and left for the city and burgeoning suburbs. They formed their own nuclear families, often far from extended family. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans lived with their kids and grandkids. By 1960, the ratio flipped, with 77.5% of all children living with two parents who were married, and apart from their extended family. Our parents fit into Brooks’s description.
Along the course, Brooks argues, we traded family stability and loyalty for convenience, privacy and mobility, with important benefits but also often overlooked costs.
In short, the good news about our modern culture: you are on your own. You are free to choose your path in life. Manifest destiny. Carpe diem.
Conversely, the bad news about our modern culture: you are on your own. Life will surely knock you down and you may not have someone alongside to pick you up. It should come as no surprise that loneliness and depression are rising.
We need to find our people. Our kin. Our chosen family.
Friendships take chemistry and they take time. Researchers suggest that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a friend and as many as 200 hours to consider somebody a best friend. Chosen family are more akin to best friends. You should feel comfortable to reach out to them at any time and they should be responsive.
Many of us need chosen family throughout life, but some chapters are more critical than others. Some of us are caught in the sandwich generation: caring for kids and parents simultaneously. This can be extraordinarily stressful and often the burden falls on the adult daughter. My good friend, Anne Tumlinson, started and runs Daughterhood.org, which provides content and support for women supporting their parents. Daughterhood.org organizes circle groups that allow women with common challenges to come together in person and support each other. For some, this can be the beginning of finding chosen family at a key time.
Older adults often need chosen family, too. We are new to Austin but our neighbor in her early 80s, Colleen, has sought us out. She has asked my wife to stop in to help out around the house and to run some errands for her. I’ve provided some training on Google Sheets at her request. Maybe that’s just what a good neighbor does. Or maybe it’s the beginning of adding chosen family.
In other situations, we need to be aware of people who need chosen family, and take action. Paige, part of our chosen family from our years in San Francisco, now lives in Richmond, Virginia. She and her young daughters have made a friendship with an older widow on their street, Miss Polly. Paige could tell that Miss Polly was lonely and so she started visiting with no set agenda. Just to say hi. These visits became more regular – at least weekly – and a special, intergenerational bond has formed.
Place matters. Chosen family – at least some of it – must be close enough so you can spend time together and be there for life’s various twists and turns. Finding your kin can happen virtually anywhere, but some places are easier than others. If you don’t have your kin and you’ve been trying for some time, maybe it’s time to change places. Maybe you are just not in the right place for you now.
I should mention that chosen family ought not to replace family but to augment it. While our family lives across the country and beyond, we’re still able to get our extended family together most years. A couple of years ago, we started a text thread that includes about a dozen family members across three generations. People share funny stories, memorable pictures and prayer requests. It’s a way to keep in touch even though we’re not physically close.
With two teenagers and an aspiring teenager, our immediate family is not planning any weddings in the near future. However, when the time comes, I’ll be eager to celebrate with our family, our chosen family and chosen family that we have yet to meet. There will be much to be grateful for.
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