The Mirriam-Webster dictionary has 17 possible definitions of the word “family.” Nine of those are more scientific uses of the word, grouping common things, leaving 6 ways to talk about people in relationship with one another.
1a: The basic unit in a society. Traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children, but also any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family (e.g. the single-parent family).
By this definition, I think my family is defined as my adoptive parents, me, and my also adopted brother. I think we fall under the “also” clause, being not quite a traditional family, but pretending such. As an adoptee, this family comes with the ghost family of my original family, my first mother, my first father, their families. It also comes with the ghosts of all the possible outcomes to my adoption. I was not chosen by my parents. They chose adoption. They chose adoption after infertility, so adoption was not their first choice. In adoption, my adoptive parents grieved the lost of their genetic family. I grieve the loss of my first families. My first families (or one of them, at least) grieved the loss of me. Adoption starts in grief. It does not have to end there, but often does when we do not do the grieving needed for our losses and traumas at the outset. This family set is sad.
1b: [One’s] spouse and children. As a child-free unmarried woman past child-bearing age (and with a tubal block required by a different medical procedure), I do not have either of these. I did not start grieving the loss of my first families until almost my mid-30s. I am still not done. My grief, and the mythos my adoptive parents raised me on, that of a love so great that my first mother would give me away, has made me unable and unwilling to form a pair bond with someone that I’d define in a legal document (i.e. marriage). Love is not safe. Legal definitions of relationships are not safe either. The “better life” my first mother released me to included the trauma of losing her before I had words, and the grief of losing my adoptive father before I was an adult. There are no guarantees. Nothing is safe.
2: A group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head; a household. I do live in a household. I do even live with a romantic partner, just recently, for the first time. I have also lived with a variety of roommates over the years, though I’ve spent more time living alone. My household contains two adults, no head, and 3 cats. For census purposes, for tax purposes, for legal purposes, though, we are unrelated individuals living together. I love my partner, but don not rely on legal paperwork for that. For me, feeling safe in that relationship means I need to decide each day that I can continue. This is harder than I thought it would be.
3a. A group of persons of common ancestry; a clan. The family in which I was raised was Irish-Catholic. Irish, Irish, Irish. And CATHOLIC. My adoptive parents grew up in ethnic neighborhoods in a large city, with ethnically separated Catholic churches, and both went to Catholic school. My adoptive father rarely went to church with us, but we went every weekend. We went to CCD (Catholic Sunday school) and made our way through the benchmark sacrements, including confirmation, which is a theoretically adult decision to formally join the church. “Adult” decisions made at 16 or so don’t always stick, and neither my brother nor I are religious or members of any church.
My olive-skinned, ethnically-ambiguous brother may or may not have Irish ancestry. He has done DNA testing, but has declined to share the results with me. I may have a tiny bit, but not much, according to Ancestry and 23 and Me. Our names, however, are as saintly and Irish Catholic as possible. Oh, and having traced as many of my family lines as I can get ahold of doing genealogy, my adoptive father’s mother was FRENCH, and only one of my adoptive mother’s lines is Irish. My first mom’s family’s primary identity is Chinese, though I definitely pass as white. She was described to my adoptive mother, over the phone during the call when I was made available to my adoptive family, as “Oriental in appearance,” according to my adoptive mom’s scribbled notes. As a trained secretary, my adoptive mom is pretty good at transcription. Those notes she made on that call are still fascinating to me.
3b. A people or group of people regarded as deriving from a common stock; a race. I am not sure where to go with this one. See the above. I am racially white. Ethnically, I am still conflicted. I get caught between how I was raised and my recently-discovered biological/genetic origins and/or the ethnic affiliations of my biological families. Neither is the full truth of me.
4. A group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation; a fellowship. This one I understand. My fellowship family are the adoptees I’ve met in person and online. My adoptee family are the women I’ve met in the support groups for female adoptees at the two AAC conferences I’ve attended. They are the adoptees I know through Twitter and on Facebook, though I say little on FB because that account is attached to a photo of me, my legal identity, and connected to family members.
I feel … conflicted. About family, about defining it, about my generalized anxiety around the idea of family as well as my own families. I am alternately annoyed, enraged, and bemused by how incredibly exclusive the idea of family is even though reality doesn’t work that way. And that’s not an adoptee thing! That’s just life — so many members of my generation came out of families where their parents divorced and often remarried. Family exclusivity ideals make divorce and remarriage harder on everyone, makes it harder for stepparents to be a positive influence. Even marriage complicates family — how many married couples do you know how create absolutely ridiculous holiday schedules to manage everyone’s families, sometimes even forgetting the one they created together?
I don’t know how to balance competing needs. I am working on just balancing my own needs, which often compete with one another. I have entirely taken a break from The Holidays since reunion (now 6 years ago). I make myself some nice food, but I don’t travel, I don’t try to visit family, I just sort of take a pause on life. I am sad about family, in general, and that keeps me from appreciating what I do have sometimes. That’s another thing I can’t balance — sad for what I’ve lost or do not have, appreciative of what I do. I don’t know how people do it.