There isn't a perfect family. Regardless of what kind of family you were born into, you can keep adding characters to your clan, devoid of relation.
The phrase “family values” often conjures images of a cheesy half hour of prime-time television replete with big hair, wacky neighbors and lessons quickly learned. In reality, the likelihood of belonging to a family unit comprised of a goofy dad who tinkers in the garage, a mom who makes pancakes every morning and a set of slightly precocious suburban kids who never get fat (despite living on a diet of pancakes) is pretty low. In fact, in 2013 only 19 percent of U.S. households were made up of a married couple with kids. The other 81 percent of us surround ourselves with people who break the narrow mold traditionally accompanied by laugh tracks, and some of our nearest and dearest aren’t related to us at all.
In reality, the friend who always answers our calls, the barista who doubles as our therapist, the hairdresser who knows our mood better than we do and the co-worker who invited us out during our first crushingly lonely week in a new city can feel as much like our family as the clan we’re born into. These people aren’t assigned to us, but chosen by us—and isn’t that as worthy of celebration as any confluence of fate and genetics? These carefully selected families continue to grow throughout our lives without a ticking sociological or biological clock to worry about.
The decline of the nuclear family is sometimes seen as a modern phenomenon, but if you dig deeply into the cultural traditions of the not-so-distant past, it’s clear that family has always been an abstract concept more than a unifying description. In fact, it’s the white-picket-fence model that’s the anomaly.
Until the mid-1800s, a Japanese family unit was defined as a collection of people who worked together in a single village, while in Ghana, the Caribbean and Polynesia, it’s not unusual for children to be fostered to other families, which means ties are often extended beyond the immediate clan. During the Middle Ages, European men were even able to join themselves to each other in a form of “sworn kinship,” complete with an exchange of vows and a ceremony. King James I and his “best friend,” the Duke of Buckingham, blurred familial distinctions dramatically by referring to each other as god-sibling, father, child, husband and wife.
Likewise, in other countries, terms such as brother, sister, aunt, uncle and cousin are used as expressions of endearment and respect, unrelated to genetics. Even the origin of the word family (Latin for household) seems ill-fitting at a time when more people than ever live alone or move away from the place they’re born, whether it’s for work, love or adventure.
Nowadays, a family is simply a network of people who care for each other. It can contain hundreds or two. You can be born into one or build your own. Membership can be gained through genetics, friendship, geographic proximity, work or a shared appreciation of The Bachelor. Someone who encourages your talents, cushions your heartaches, tolerates your complaints and laughs at your jokes—or even if they laugh at your complaints and tolerate your jokes—can feel as close to a brother or sister as anyone you share DNA or a dinner table with.
In our current society, real family values have nothing to do with where we live or how we know each other—they’re about how we treat each other. Now there’s a concept worthy of a cheesy half hour of television.
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