It’s time to re-define ‘family’

Launie Gardner teaches government at Truckee Meadows Community College High School.

I sat looking out over Lake Tahoe—or what I could see of it on this typical spring day, as snow and wind whipped up a maelstrom. To my left sat my three younger brothers (one half, two step), my half-sister and my adopted stepsister. Three other half-brothers and a new stepsister came down the aisle with the bride and groom, our parents.

Behind me sat several of the families I had grown up with, and it was difficult not to speculate what they must be thinking about the complexity of our family tree. Missing in action were another new stepbrother and two full-blooded, boycotting siblings. They, like many in this country, are offended by what they judge as a lack of respect for what it means to be a family.

How mainstream American culture defines “family” has always been problematic. We live in a country that began by throwing off the vestiges of birthright, and yet we are proud of our genealogical strides, tracing ancestries back hundreds of years. This zeal for identification has created a castigating atmosphere, with many rejected from the family count because of divorce and abandonment.

Many feel as if the family is being attacked by downwardly spiraling morality. Bolster “family” values, some say. But the price of keeping a so-called nuclear family together at all costs is steep. And it’s doubtful whether children are helped by a narrow classification of family membership that stigmatizes those who belong to non-traditional families.

How many of us have shamefully worn the brand of being from a “broken home"? What kind of messages do we send about family when this labeling punishes and devalues, and when adequate services, such as health and day care, are often only affordable for the traditional family?

In a Christian Science Monitor article that ran in August last year, Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor at Colby College in Maine, writes: “We seem to understand the structure of family only in a narrow, nuclear sense. … I want to value the raising of children generally in this culture.”

My own experience, with my parents’ divorce and my own—and working in public schools—has helped enlarge my idea of family. While shock and disbelief is a common response to my unique family, I relish the inherent rich opportunities in being part of such a clan. My students have also taught me that family is not something I leave at home.

My greatest teacher, my grandmother, never required labels. She died this past week. At 83, she is survived by five of eight siblings, two sons, 18 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. One of my cousins is expecting in September and, with eight of my siblings still yet to marry, it’s impossible to estimate the final number of her progeny. But her legacy remains—that family is anyone who enters our lives, no matter what their lineage.

Our society’s current notions of family could be enhanced, rather than used as a coercive tool to damn and diminish. If only we could perceive of family as something larger, broader than society’s outdated norm.