Creating Your Chosen Family

Have you ever wondered what happens to all those items that end up in the lost and found box? Are they ever reunited with their rightful owners? Do they end up in the trash? Will they go on to find new, loving homes? I imagine it depends not only on which lost and found box they end up in, but even more so on the people who lost them in the first place. If they aren’t willing or able to take care of their things, look after them to avoid being lost in the first place, or to work like hell to recover them when they are lost, then those things probably end up lost forever… Until they are either thrown away or found again by someone else.

It seems like such a simple concept when we’re talking about a pair of mittens or a shoe. It gets a little more complicated when we’re talking about people…

When you find yourself in that lost and found box, how do you move forward? Do you find your own way back where you came from and keep trying to stay connected with a family who can no longer (or maybe never did) care for you in the ways you need to stay safe and healthy? Or do you let go of the past and move on without that family, finding a new place to call home?

After ending up in that lost and found box a few too many times myself, I learned early on that family isn't about biology. Family is about people showing up for each other, taking care of each other, loving and respecting each other. In the absence of that in my own family of origin, I’ve had to work hard to build a chosen family for myself.

And this chosen family? They are my people. The people who lifted me up when my family of origin tried to tear me down; the people that cheered me on when I went to graduate school, ran a marathon and decided to buy my first condo as a single gal; the people who showed up for my birthday parties, sometimes from halfway across the country - and some who even threw me surprise parties; the people who held my hand through countless surgeries and the occasional sickness; the people who carried me through grieving the loss of the relationship I never had with my mother when she died; the people who celebrated all the little successes with me over the years; the people who surrounded me with encouragement and reassuring words when I was terrified of becoming a mother, and who are now still standing tall by my side every day with reassuring words when I’m convinced I’m screwing it all up. They choose to take care of me. And you know what? I would (and do) chose to take care of every one of them, too.

Leaving behind my family of origin was hard. These were the people who were supposed to love me, fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. Especially my mother who was biologically conditioned to love and protect me. Accepting that they simply could not do that forced me to stare down my own insecurities and fears that their lack of love must have meant that I was unlovable (something I still struggle with despite the amazing people standing behind me today). In the midst of pulling myself out of that lost and found box, which admittedly has taken several attempts before I finally stopped letting them drop me there, I found solace in these simple words by Jewel,  “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be freed from.”

I distinctly remember a conversation with my soon-to-be sister-in-law a few months before my wedding. I was struggling with the decision about whether or not to invite any of my family of origin to attend. After rambling through the pros and cons (read: hopes and fears) for well over an hour, she thoughtfully responded with this: “You can invite them, or not invite them. There is no right or wrong answer here. But... you have 30+ years of experience with this situation under your belt. You know what it looks like and what it is likely to look like at your wedding. Maybe it will be fine; maybe it won’t be. But when it becomes the drama-infused source of stress you rightfully anticipate it will be, you don’t get to be mad at them this time. You get to be mad at yourself for knowingly accepting and inviting that into your life again on one of the most important days of your life.” Of course we had already talked about the possibility that in some situations people can and do in fact change, but the reality I knew about this situation told me that this wasn’t one that was likely to ever change. And I realized, finally, that it was time to free myself from the cycle.  

Walking away from that family of origin released me to find a better, chosen family. My chosen family may not ever completely fill the void of that which a family of origin is supposed to provide a child (or even an adult child). I know that. But that doesn’t mean that it isn't the most incredible gift that will never stop giving. This chosen family makes me better every day. And chances are a chosen family can do the same for you if your family of origin is not able to love you the way you deserve.

So, go; Find your tribe; Love them hard.