When the Word “Family” Causes Distress

Source: Photo by Oleg Illarionov on Unsplash

“Are you visiting family for the holidays?” While almost certainly a well-intended question by the person asking, such a question can create painful emotions for those with strained or no relationships with members of their family of origin. When you think of words that cause pain, the word “family” is probably not the first that comes to mind. However, “family” can be quite a loaded word. A couple struggling with infertility may be asked, “When are you starting a family?” and wonder why they are not already enough of a family as a couple. A transgender man may not attend their family’s holiday celebration because they are not welcome unless they dress feminine. A lesbian woman might not celebrate the holidays with her parents because since coming out, she is not allowed to bring her girlfriend. Many are not welcome at their family’s holiday dinner because their partner is of another race or practices a different religion.

Beyond the expected display of sparkly lights, exchange of gifts, and holiday parties, the holiday season predictably does not leave space for many individuals from marginalized populations. They are often left without room to be who they really are and a nurturing place to celebrate the holidays that are important to them.

How do we take care of ourselves during the holiday season if the word family causes distress? How do we celebrate holidays with others when our blood relatives are not people we can share a table with this year? We need to expand the definition of the word family for ourselves.

Chosen Family

Traditionally in the United States, the word family refers to the basic unit of two married people raising their children together. There are many problematic assumptions built into that definition – that the two people have children, that these parents are one biological female and male, that they take on the roles of mother and father, etc. Chosen family is a term that is often used in the LGBTQIA+ community, as many members have experienced rejection and abuse by their biological relatives and found support, love, and safety by intentionally associating with others who provide such things.

The term chosen family however is not inherently queer. A chosen family is bound by a mutual commitment to accept, support, and love one another regardless of blood relation or marriage. You may already have a chosen family and not realize it. Perhaps you have this special relationship with a few friends. This could also look like people from all over the world who are living in the same city coming together and forming a supportive community in their new city. A chosen family does not have to be large. It can be formed by two people who share the common goal of mutual care and support. You get to decide what family means to you and who makes up your family.

You Are Your Own Family

You. Yes, just you. You are your own family. You are a family if you are single. You are a family if you do not have contact with your family of origin. You are a family if you do not have children. It is natural to feel grief over the things you wish you had. Perhaps you crave a close family of blood relatives, a romantic partner, getting pregnant, or having a large friend group to socialize with. Your sadness is valid. At the same time, do not discount the significance of your relationship with yourself. Do you have a commitment to accept, support, and love yourself? This is a good time of year to spend time thinking about why or why not and what you might want to do more of and less of in the new year. Less negative self-talk? More connecting with your values and how you might live in alignment with them?

Our families are who we choose. Do not forget to choose yourself.