Family by Choice

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."

In addition to Javed and Neeraj, we have other friends whom we have chosen, and who have chosen us, as family. My children have close and loving relationships with aunts, uncles, and cousins: near and far, inherited and chosen, biological and otherwise.

Of course, heterosexuals choose relatives, too. A married person's closest relative is his or her spouse, a chosen relative. The wedding day is when all the relationships change. An uncle's girlfriend turns into an aunt; a boyfriend's parents are suddenly in-laws. And a couple is now each other's next of kin.

It is much the same with gay people, although there may be no event to give a date to the transformation. Marriage is a social construct as well as a legal and religious one, and same-sex couples form marriages, too. We voluntarily assume the same responsibilities toward each other that straight married couples do. For some gay couples, the religious or ceremonial element is important, and many do, in fact, choose to have weddings. Whether or not we choose to commemorate the marriage with a ceremony marking its commencement or anniversary, the marriage relationship exists.

What is missing is the legal recognition for our relationships, and the rights that flow with that recognition. Although Stacy and I have been married for over twenty years and have three children together, we cannot file a joint income-tax return or be considered each other's next-of-kin by many hospitals and other institutions. Our children do not have both parents' names on their birth certificates. We have to have a complex set of documents to grant each other some of the basic rights that heterosexual spouses get automatically when they marry.

The ongoing national debate over same-sex marriage is, in fact, a debate over whether our perfectly valid and strong marriages will be recognized by legal institutions. I have come to believe that this is an important distinction. As my thinking on the topic has evolved, I have started to take care to speak of "when our marriages are recognized in the law" rather than "when we acquire the right to marry."

I have also changed the way I describe and name members of our extended family. It has become important to me to use the language of marriage. When I told my colleagues that we were spending a vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Oregon, I was telling them more than where I would be. I was saying that Vi is my relative, not just Stacy's, and that my marriage is one of kinship as well as love and companionship. When my brother's wife introduces us to their neighbors, saying, "This is my sister-in-law, Dale, and my other sister-in-law, Stacy," she is making the same point.

Our extended family has all kinds of people in it: those related through blood, through marriage, through kinship grown of friendship. It's a rich and varied family life, and one from which we all derive sustenance. Still, there are some issues I have not quite resolved.

I don't know how to talk about the missing relatives, for example. Naming the chosen relatives is empowering and celebratory. It adds to the family. When I speak to my children of my parents, I'm talking instead about a subtraction.

One way I deal with this is by never referring to my father and mother as my children's grandparents. How can they be grandparents to children they choose not to meet, children of a daughter they disowned two decades ago? I'm more comfortable saying only that they are my parents. The alternative, saying that they are grandparents who don't want to know their grandchildren, seems just too awful.

Still, I worry that by speaking in this way I am perhaps denying my children part of their heritage and history, even if it is an unpleasant part. Similarly, I don't know how to refer to those of my siblings and extended family who have gone along with my parents in their ostracism of me and my family. Can I name as "uncle" someone entirely hostile to my children, children who know the most loving of uncles? One solution would be just not to talk about my family of origin, but I don't want to deny my kids knowledge of my own childhood and history. Many of my childhood memories are wonderful, and my history belongs to my children as well as to me. So, although I don't dwell on the estrangement, I do tell stories from my childhood. I speak plainly about the lack of contact, referring to these absent relatives as mine rather than my kids'. I'm not entirely comfortable with that solution, but I think it's preferable to the alternatives.  

Another troublesome area for me is the idea of permanence in chosen family. If our friends become family, what if they stop being our friends? My experience, and I think it is not atypical, is that many friendships wax and wane. I have close friends who have been my friends pretty much all my adult life, but there are others who were a major part of my life for a few years.

At the time, I thought that these friends would always be connected to me, but our lives went in different directions, our interests changed, and we lost the closeness we once had. When our friends become family, do our children lose a sense of continuity and permanence if those relationships go into decline? Does the chosen aunt cease to be an aunt if the friendship wanes?

Those concerns make me wary of adding chosen relatives. Although it is true that the same cycles of closeness and distance can happen in extended families formed through blood and marriage, the issue of permanence doesn't generally arise. Heterosexual families provide structures and events (family reunions, weddings, oral family history) which serve to give a sense of permanence to the kinship, even if the closeness isn't there. Except for the extreme behavior of parents such as mine, people can generally assume that their extended family will always be in their lives to some extent.

I want to ensure that my children have the same sense of permanence in family that other children take for granted, especially considering the pain of family loss that I myself experienced. Maybe the answer is for all parties to be careful about the relatives they choose, and to look on the choice as one that is lifelong, even though the relationship will not always be the same.

Some of these issues trouble me, but in sum I am happy that we offer our children the rich and varied familial life we have fashioned over the years.

We and the children all benefit from the sharing of pain and joy, from the get-togethers and the reminiscences, from the multiple tellings of family stories that everybody remembers differently. I rejoice that we have been able to provide ourselves and our children with a family of history and of choice, and look forward to the day when our family expands to include our children's chosen few.


This essay was originally published in Kids' Talk, the newsletter of Center Kids, the family project of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center of New York. Dale Rosenberg lives in New York City with her spouse and three children.

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