Family by Choice

The art of conscious connections

The old adage says you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives. As a lesbian mother, I know that the adage can be deceiving. In gay families we often choose both our friends and our relatives, and sometimes they are the same people.

The idea of chosen family is one that predates the current boom in lesbian and gay parenting. While in recent years, large numbers of lesbian and gay couples have chosen to bring children into their families through artificial insemination or adoption, people within the gay community have for generations spoken of their "gay families": friendship networks with whom they shared holidays, important events, joy, and pain. Sometimes, gay people have formed chosen families in response to the loss of their families of origin. Many lesbians and gay men who have been disowned by their birth families look to chosen friends to give and receive familial love and support.

But even lesbians and gay men who have not become totally estranged from parents and siblings still sometimes find they need something more from family. Many who maintain relationships with their families of origin find that those relationships are strained by the family's discomfort with homosexuality. As heterosexual siblings form their own families, some lesbians and gay men have found that their parents more easily accept their siblings' spouses and children into the extended family, granting a level of kinship denied to the gay offspring's partner.

My own parents disavowed their kinship with me when I came out to them. They have also made great efforts to ensure that my siblings and extended family removed me from the fold as well. At different times and to different degrees, some of my extended family have indeed shunned me and my spouse, Stacy. Meanwhile, I have developed strong, familial relationships with people whose genes and history I do not share.

Our decision to have children added another element to this dynamic. Those of us in planned lesbian and gay families don't just decide to become parents, as straight couples do. It's not that simple for us. We have neither legal nor social structures to support our families. Generally, only one member of a lesbian or gay couple has any legally and socially recognized relationship to a child. A lot of Heathers have two mommies, but only the biological mother is universally recognized as the child's parent. As a result, both individuals in a gay or lesbian couple must make a conscious choice to be a parent. It is a powerful choice, and an awesome one.

Recognizing that we have that power to choose a life of parenting makes many of us prochoice in our extended family as well. We give a lot of thought to who our children's extended family will be.

When Stacy and I were in college, we had become friends with a couple of graduate students, Javed and Neeraj. We met them shortly after they arrived from Delhi with their almost-two-year-old son, Badal. Our friendship with them grew during the years we all lived in Montreal, and it continued after we moved to New York and they returned to India. We met and befriended Neeraj's sister and her family, who moved to our area. We rejoiced when Neeraj and Javed had another baby, and bemoaned the fact that we weren't with them. We saved up and managed to visit them in Delhi once. We saw them as well when they could get here, and stayed in touch with infrequent phone calls and letters. We felt very close to them in spite of the distance. We often commented that Nareej and Javed were "like family," but we didn't go the extra step of defining our bond with them as truly a kinship relationship.

Badal spent the summer he was eleven in the United States. He split his time between us and his aunt and uncle in New Haven. He went to work with me a couple of days, with Stacy more often, and we took him visiting people and places. We all had a great time. We did, however, sometimes have difficulty explaining who he was. When I said that he was my friends' son visiting from India, people were confused. Coming that far for that long did not seem like something friends usually did.

I stopped referring to Badal and his brother Kabeer as "my friends' kids" when I was pregnant with Doran, our own eldest child. They were living for a year in Montreal, where Javed had gotten a visiting professor position. The boys came to stay with us for a couple of weeks, and they were very excited about my pregnancy. They kept talking about what their new cousin would be like. Suddenly, the relationship became clear. I realized that they were not pretending that the new baby would be their cousin or saying that that was what they wished. They were naming a kinship that already existed.

Kabeer and Badal have been our nephews ever since. When Doran was born, Neeraj came to New York for a while to help us get settled. She was quite clear that she wanted Doran to learn to call her aunt. What's more, she wanted him to do so in Hindi, a language which has five different words that translate to "aunt" in English. The one she knew was the right term is the one that means "mother's sister."

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