When it comes to close ties, for many of us, the closest are those we share with our immediate family. But our relationships with our blood relations can be fraught and complex, and sometimes it’s not from these people, but from our chosen connections, that we find the greatest emotional nourishment. For Pat, as a queer woman, this has been especially true.
Pat spins wool. A spinning wheel sits in the window, surrounded by neat bags of unspun fleece. She shows us samples of completed yarn, twisted and knotted into elegant plaits, dyed into rich colours.
We admire a nearly-complete jumper, knitted from this wool, stretched out on the dining table.
It’s a neat analogy; as we talk, it becomes clear Pat has pulled together threads of a different sort. Pat has built up her own web of close people over time, and was happy to talk of herself as a very connected person. However, many of these links have been built up in the absence of close ties with her family of origin.
Pat’s coming out as queer proved very difficult for her family to accept.
I think, as a queer person, one of the things you learn is that your blood family can indeed desert you and your blood family can do things to you so horrible that you might decide that you need to depart from them… I had a 10-year ice age in my own nuclear family when I came out to them.
In her case, Pat felt the need to distance herself from her nuclear family. Although subsequently they have reconnected, she does not place them in her innermost circle.
I am close to my family of origin, but in quite different ways. So in some ways, I don’t think of them as my inner circle… I have very strong, persistent relationships with them. I know that they’d always be there for me, but there are a huge number of things in my life that I would never raise with them, given a choice.
Rather, over time she has spun herself a ‘family of choice,’ a selection of close connections who have come to hold stronger ties than her family of origin.
When you are a queer person… I don’t really think that blood is thicker than water. I think that’s a decision that people in blood relationships make about one another that they don’t appreciate as a choice. For me, it is a choice.
A ‘family of choice’, as Pat points out, is not a term she has coined; this may be a familiar term to many who identify on the LGBT spectrum, who may have been forced to distance themselves from their nuclear ‘families of origin’.
In their book, ‘Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments’, Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan describe ‘families of choice’ thus:
“… Flexible, informal and varied, but strong and supportive networks of friends and lovers, often including members of families of origin. They provide the framework for the development of mutual care, responsibility and commitment for many non-heterosexual people—and indeed for many heterosexuals as well.” (2001: 4)
For Pat, it’s her partner, her stepdaughter, and a couple of close friends and their son (for whom she is “fairy godmother”) who constitute her family of choice. In the case of her stepdaughter Ali, Pat made a very deliberate choice to become a part of her life.
When it became clear that Ali, the daughter of Pat’s best friend, lacked a functional parent in her father, Ali identified Pat as a possible parent, should anything happen to her mother.
I think I took a year to decide to agree. I just thought that was such a profound responsibility. In the end, I agreed that I would be Ali’s parent… Somewhat unusually, we didn’t choose it on the basis of a sexual relationship between the adults concerned, so it actually always was a relationship focused on Ali.
Weeks et al. argue that the experimentation in family arrangements in which many non-heterosexual individuals engage is also emblematic of a broader cultural trend, in which the makeup of the family unit is transforming, and becoming more mutable.
“The traditional family, we suggest, is indeed changing. But many of the values family is meant to represent are not in crisis. On the contrary, they are being reinvented in a variety of ‘experiments of living,’ through which new patterns of commitment are being enacted in everyday life. (2001: vii–viii)
Certainly, in Pat’s view, her Family of choice strongly resembles the traditional notion of family.
The relationships I have with that little posse in the middle of the circle are more like the idealised concept of family that people have.
The concept of a ‘family of choice’ draws attention to the hazy line that distinguishes friend from family, and gives us a new frame through which to think about close friendships; are many of us, in fact, looking to establish, not a circle of friends, but a family?
If we take this frame, what are the attributes that distinguish our family of choice from our other connections? This is a big question, one which we can only scratch the surface of here.
Weeks et al. point to “continuity over time, mutual support, focus for identity and for loving and caring relationships, both for adults and for children” (2001: 4) as some of the key attributes usually ascribed to traditional families, but which have begun to exist in our non-familial relationships.
“Continuity over time” is greatly assisted by proximity, and some members of Pat’s family of choice are very close, living just a few doors down the road.
The best thing about moving here was that we got to have them as really close neighbours. We’re going there tonight. They’ve got a level of everydayness in them that some people manage with their families.
And what do familial “loving and caring relationships” look like? Pat believes that relationships that work are those where others can remember what they love about you, even when you feel deeply unlovable.
I think that friendships that go well often have an element of that person being able to hold onto what they believe is true of you, even when you forget.
Do you have a family of choice? What distinguishes it from your other connections? Flick us a message!