Family. It’s a word we hear often. A team may refer to itself as a family. Co-workers may identify as a family. We have long time friends, or friends we are particularly close to, who are “like family.” We may consider someone the sister or brother we never had. We battle over the definition of marriage in part because it informs who is legally considered “family.” We refer to our pets as our “fur babies.”
But are these people (and animals) family? Why is it hard to identify and pin down exactly what we mean when we say the word? Why do we give this label to people to whom we are not related by blood or sacrament?
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of family is: “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.” The definition continues: “a group of persons of common ancestry: Clan.” That seems straightforward. Family has to do with parents, children, and ancestors.
Another Meaning of Family
However, then the definition goes on to say that family can be “a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation: Fellowship.” This could refer to a team or co-workers or a group of friends. For our purposes we’ll call this the second definition of “family” (Merriam-Webster calls it the fourth).
What is it about the label “family” that makes us want to apply it to people who aren’t family in the traditional sense? Does this second definition dilute the meaning of “family?”
It does dilute the word if we fail to make the important distinction between the first and second definition. When we neglect to draw the line between traditional family and friends we call family, ambiguities and awkward situations can arise.
Sharing Life Together
We are a people searching for connection. Those I consider my family include my parents, siblings, husband, kids, in-laws, nieces, and nephews. They are my clan. These are the people I would take a bullet for, drop everything for, and sacrifice for. They are people I love even if they act badly, the people who still love me when I act badly.
Furthermore, family is a socially acceptable excuse. No one judges when we decline an invitation because of “family obligations.” Family trumps everyone and no one takes offense at being second to someone else’s family. If a family member is going through a hard time, it’s OK to cancel dinner plans with a friend. That is not as true if it’s another friend going through a hard time. Cancelling on one friend for another friend may cause some irritation. So when I hear someone lump me in as “family,” when I see the relationship as more of an affiliation, I bristle a little. “Family” is a word I don’t take lightly.
Creating an Identity
What does family mean to me? Permanence, commitment, accountability, forgiveness, loyalty, putting the other first, unconditionality. But it also means bickering, and showing my ugly side. Family has a shared history and long ago memories in common. Family circles the proverbial wagons when one member is hurting. It is more than a group of people who are sharing some part of life together. Family is people who are sharing all of life together.
“Look around this table,” we said to our children. “These are the people who will always love you and always be there for you. These are the people you can count on. Friends come and go.” We have tried to create an identity for ourselves as a family. “This is how we do it.” “This is what our family does.” “This is who we are.”
Sacrificial Love of Friends
That said, we have some dear friends whom my children call “Aunt” and “Uncle”, and my children call the kids of these friends “cousins”. These are people who have been in our lives for thirty years.
Not everyone has a good family experience. Families can be strong as iron or fragile as glass. When I consider that there are broken families and people who haven’t experienced what I have been blessed to experience, I realize I need to expand my definition of family.
Some struggle with real dysfunction in their family where they are abused physically, mentally, emotionally. Some are cheated on or abandoned. Family members have the power to inflict great pain on each other. We often tolerate bad behavior from a family member because, well, he or she is family. We would not put up with that treatment from a friend.
For some, the concept of a loving, supportive team of a family is foreign. The true love they experience is through friends. When help is needed or there is good news to share, they turn to friends, not family. The unconditional, sacrificial love comes from friends.
Deep Relationships Rooted in Love
I think we can be too loose with the word “family”, but I understand its use as a label for a feeling of connectedness. In a world filled with negativity, hate, and social media relationships, we desire to be united to others. We long for connection. We want to be part of something bigger and it becomes part of our identity. Our desire to be known and loved is so great we even turn to pets for the unconditional love we don’t receive from those around us.
It’s worth noting the importance God places on family. When God came to us he came as part of a family: a mother, a father, and a baby. God is our father. The Virgin Mary is our mother. We are part of God’s family. That is why it is common for us to call fellow believers brothers and sisters in Christ. As a friend once told me, “Our nuclear family provides us our first opportunity to love others as Christ loves us. If we live our life as Christ invites us we will come to see and love all people as our brother and our sister.”
So we create family. We fill the hole. If our family can’t do their family job because of death, illness, or distance, we find people to fill those roles. We find ways to have those deep connective relationships rooted in love, trust, honesty, and forgiveness. We find ways to give as well as receive love.
The Common Denominator Is Love
As I prayed about the meaning of family, I realized there are some very strong relationships between people who aren’t related by blood or sacrament, but they support and feed each other as if they were. We may have to resort to our second definition (or Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition) of “family” to include these relationships, but the use of the word “family” in reference to these friends is still valid.
As mentioned earlier though, we should make a clear distinction between friends we call “family” and our traditional family.
The ambiguity of the word suggests a deep need that everyone seeks to fulfill somehow, especially when a person’s traditional family doesn’t fulfill that need. Family is about long term, self-sacrificing commitment. It’s the relationships where we can be ourselves and be loved, where we can give love freely as Jesus calls us to, and see others as our brothers and sisters in Christ. What the world needs is love, and the more love we shower on it the better off everyone will be. God is love and part of how we love him is through loving others, whether we call them family or something else.
It all comes down to love.
Has the word “family” lost its meaning? How do you define family? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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About Merridith Frediani
Merridith Frediani’s perfect day includes prayer, writing, unrushed morning coffee, reading, tending to dahlias, and playing Sheepshead with her husband and three teenagers. She loves leading small faith groups for moms and looking for God in the silly and ordinary. She blogs and writes for her local Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.
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