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Exploring the meaning of “chosen” family

I am wandering through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, admiring the huge canvasses covered in color, the expertly painted figures and scenes, the photographs of birds. One piece, a wall of circuits and gadgets and wires connecting, crisscrossing, circling around, catches my attention. Interconnected. I call my friend Ziggy over to look.

“What do you think this is all about?” I ask her. She tilts her head to one side. “Love,” she says simply and walks away to admire the enormous lips on the other wall.

I stand for a long time imagining it as a representation of my current musing: chosen family. I’ve been thinking lately about how it is we become interconnected. Beyond being born into a relationship with others, how is it that we relate to people in the world? How do we sidle up and make lasting connections? How do people choose each other and think of them as family?

Marguerite DiPasquale McGrath has an interesting angle on the topic. Marguerite, a 14-year-old student at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School says, “As an adoptee with gay parents I always hated when people asked me, ‘Do you know your real family or real parents?’ or ‘So which one’s your actual dad?’

“To me this is completely disrespectful to both my fathers. They are both my ‘actual dad’ and ‘real parents.’ Why wouldn’t the parents who raised me be my ‘real parents’ and what makes them not my ‘real family’?” she says.

“Just because Jason, my older brother, isn’t blood related doesn’t mean we’re not siblings. We act like, fight like, and get along like any other blood-related siblings,” she says. “Basically, I define family by who I love, not by whom I share DNA with.”

This is a good working definition for my family. As two women, my spouse and I chose to ask a friend to help us start our family, so we each share DNA with one of our children. People will ask me if I feel differently toward that one, and I’m with Marguerite — this question is based on a limited idea of what it means to be someone’s parent, to love and care for them with a full heart, holding nothing back.

The unanticipated gift that came with creating a family this way is how connected our family became with our friend and his family. We have grown to become each other’s people. We celebrate holidays and birthdays. We make dinners, build tree houses, plant perennials. We get frustrated, disappointed, delighted and soothed and at the end of the day we do whatever we are called to do to make life easier and more wonderful for each other.

If we broaden our thinking of family beyond blood relations, as adoption asks us to do, then we see the people around us, the ones we’ve made a commitment to, as our family. Jonathan Thomas, a Greenfield area family therapist, says, “Chosen families can (miraculously) provide the joy and healing that sometimes does not or cannot occur in original families, even with the help of family therapy.”

This coincides with what poet Maya Janson of Florence has experienced.

“I think for me the emphasis is on the choice part — that these deep friendships can become family connections in terms of the ways we support each other. We share major life events with each other, making a commitment to each other, whether spoken or unspoken. Compared to biological family, where we don’t have a choice — we just appear in a given family and it can be complicated in terms of getting one’s needs met, versus as an adult making these strong connections based on who we are and what we need and want,” she said.
“In some ways it feels like a more authentic expression of oneself that can be deeply satisfying and maybe more satisfying than what one gets from biological family.”

Deirdre Arthen of Cummington is part of an intentional family that lives together on 100 acres in the Hilltowns and have all chosen to share the same last name. “People often ask us about our relationships to each other: “Are you sisters?” “Is he your nephew?” she said.

“We have found that in casual situations it is usually best to just say ‘yes’ and leave it at that. The full explanation can be more than most people want to hear, and using their definitions of those relationships on an emotional level, it is true: I am her sister or his aunt in terms of the commitment and responsibility that I feel toward them.”

Commitment and responsibility are two important components that continue to surface in my conversations with people about the family they have created.

I turn to my sounding board to weigh in on the matter.

“If there is space in the heart, then it will look for someone to come into that space,” Ziggy tells me and I think she’s right. It’s about space in your heart to hold another person and the capacity to make a promise to them, and for all my research and rumination this is the line that continues to return to me. It is about the space in our hearts. This is what links adoption with adults finding and picking each other to share the voyage; it is the center of the topic.

As I stand contemplating the connected circuitry piece that dominates a wall of the museum, I am aware that the unifying piece is the background, the context for all the random parts. The unifying piece in chosen family is our hearts. The space in our hearts that longs for and is willing to work for a deep commitment. This is a commitment that goes beyond what one experiences with most other people, one through thick and through thin. The idea that this is a love you will not walk away from, not because you can’t, but because you choose not to.

Elizabeth Slade, a local author and columnist, lives in Leeds with her spouse and three children. She can be reached at egslade@newview.com.co.

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