By Lauren Jankowski
Recently I led a discussion in my Gender and Culture class on a chapter from “Families We Choose” by Kath Weston. The chapter was entitled “Exiles from Kinship” and it was about how the Bay Area gay and lesbian community began constructing their own families in the 80s. These created families challenged the common definition of “family”, particularly the anthropological definition. Up until that point, anthropology defined kinships almost solely on biological ties. This overly simplistic definition overlooked the fact that family is not a purely biological construct, not entirely. Rather, family -even kinship -is a lot more fluid than we realize.
As an adoptee, I find that I don’t put as much stock in the importance of blood ties. Throughout my life, I have constructed many different families. I have noticed other adoptees often do the same thing, sometimes without even realizing it. I grew up with a large Italian family, emphasis on large. Everyone was an aunt or uncle, regardless of whether they were related by blood or not. Along with my parents’ siblings, there were a number of family friends that my brother and I referred to as “aunt” or “uncle”. Their children were our cousins.
As I grew up, I began to find my personality, beliefs, and goals were completely different. My family is very child-centric to the point of being old-fashioned. Every birth is celebrated and every woman is expected to settle down with a nice man. Holidays and gatherings are filled with discussions of whose child did/accomplished what, along with the normal sports talk and economy complaints (with the occasional chat about television). Being a natural bookworm with an independent streak, I found this environment to be stifling. When I decided very late in high school to marry myself to my work and lead a life without romantic attachments (I decided long ago that having a family was just not for me), this was met with “Well, you’ll feel differently when you meet the right man and have children of your own.”
While I do love my family, I realized that I needed a new support system. So I turned to college and friends, creating my own eclectic group of individuals that I adore and admire for different reasons. Some began from a mutual love of the written word. Others shared my love of really great stories and myths. Some share my desire to live a completely independent life. Others are people that I find to be fascinating, either due to their personality or because they showed me a new way to think about the world. Still others are accepting and offer me the intellectual conversations that I so love and crave. The one thing that this created family shares is that everyone in it accepts me as is, even when I’m at my worst, and treats me as an equal.
In 1991, Kath Weston wrote that we need to move past our rigid biological definition of kinship and explore alternative families, ones that aren’t necessarily based on the biological model. When I recently visited The Cradle again, Gabby told me about an annual picnic that is held for adoptive and biological families. The kids wear two different nametags: one with the name given by the biological parent(s) and the second given by their adoptive family. As I write this, I think about how my definition of family has changed as I’ve grown and matured.
As a society, we need to accept that there are different kinds of families and kinships. Not all of them revolve around biological ties. In the grand scheme of things, biology is probably a lot less important than most people think. In my mind, I have two families, both of whom I love dearly and would do anything for. I do not favor one over the other and would never choose between them. In my book, they are equal. I’d be very surprised if I were alone in feeling this way.