Written By: Adrianne Reiners
I grew up with two parents and two sisters. My sisters are twelve and six years older than I am, making our lives very different both growing up and even now. When my oldest sister was entering high school, I was three years old. And when my other sister went to college, I was starting seventh grade.
The traditional family just wasn’t what we were - but we sure as hell tried!
My mom kept the family together celebrating major milestones and holidays. She made the classic midwestern marshmallow jello salad for Thanksgiving each year, and when the extended family was in town, the obligatory generational photos were taken. She had gifts for each grandchild’s birthday months in advance and made a mean chocolate cake for major celebrations. (In the best way, obvs.)
My mom died from cancer when I was 20. She was the matriarch and held us together as a unit, so when she passed, we all fell apart in our own ways. My sisters both had husbands and kids—a family of their own—while I remained at home with our dad after mom passed. He got lost in his grief and I quickly became the parent in that relationship.
Shortly after my mom's passing, I married my first husband. Searching for a traditional family experience consistent with what I’d seen on TV and in movies, I sought connection and belonging with his family. I still had my family and we would see each other on occasion but we primarily orbited around each other at holidays hosted by extended family, and any family traditions were quickly lost.
Worried that I would be “too much” for my family because they were all going through their things, I clung to close friends for support as I navigated what felt like challenge after challenge.
Things took a twist when I opted to get divorced - a surprise to most of my family as I became an expert at masking my feelings and projecting an image of a happily married couple for years.
See, at some point along the journey of childhood, I learned that expressing emotions was “dangerous” and I stopped being emotive.
Perhaps it was the number of times I was told to stop being so dramatic, or the classic 90’s parent line: “Keep crying and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I kept everything I actually felt hidden and chalked it up to me being too much. It’s no wonder I’d been in and out of therapy or counseling since I was 15. I had lost my identity before I’d even created it by focusing on being a people-pleasing perfectionist.
Through years of therapy, I broke down my internal belief systems and assumptions about what a family should be. I realized there were so many people in my corner who served as my family through times when I didn’t feel like I could rely on the one I was born into.
Here’s a snippet of what I’ve learned while deconstructing my definition of “family”.
“Family” is a loaded word.
There is a long list of definitions of the word family according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. There are articles, Reddit threads, YouTube videos, and more highlighting the diverse history of the word and where it comes from. My favorite description thus far is: “A group of people in service of an individual.”
Perfect families don’t exist.
The family systems portrayed in movies and TV shows set the wrong expectations. The shows I grew up watching highlighted a well-organized and structured family. They had all the free time to show up for one another's events and big moments and there were never any major problems to overcome.
Nuclear families are not always tight-knit.
My sisters and I are very different people. We each grew up in different periods being spaced so far apart and our parents were different people when they raised each of us.
Family isn’t forever.
Someday, (hopefully a very long time from now) a member of your family is going to die and the way your family operates and functions will change.
The family you’re born with can’t meet all of your needs.
My parents attended some of my first counseling sessions when I was 15. I remember the counselor telling them they needed to ask me how I was feeling and how foreign that seemed to my mom. She tried a few times but eventually stopped - likely because I learned how to expertly mask my emotions shortly after that.
As a society, we have all these boxes we expect people to fit into and the traditional American family is absolutely a box.
It works for some - but it doesn’t work for most. We spin ourselves up trying to find a way to fit into the box and waste so much energy being frustrated when it doesn’t work.
After spending time evaluating what family means to me, I’ve identified the following pillars that guide my decisions on choosing who I consider my family.
Mutual love, respect, and empathy
We don’t have to live the same life or make the same life choices but we respect and love the authentic person we’re in a relationship with. We make time for them and consider each other when making decisions. We put ourselves in each other's shoes and approach conflict from a place of empathy.
Shared value systems
We share the same value systems, or at least they’re very similar. My top value is integrity, so if you’re following through, doing what you say you’ll do or the like, you’ve already got a foot in the door to being my chosen family.
We celebrate and grieve together
We show up for each other in the big moments of celebration, like getting a new job or a brand new car for the first time. And we sit with each other in moments of sadness and grief, like when we’re passed over for an exciting promotion or lose a pet.
If you’ve been struggling with feeling seen by your bio family, take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
What does the word ‘family’ mean to you?
I hope you’re surprised by the number of people who fit your definition.
Meet the Author
Adrianne Reiners is a chicken-raising, hobby farm-building, operational generalist living in the forest of northern Minnesota. Her self-proclaimed tagline, "I didn't spend thousands in therapy to be silent," is what fuels her vulnerability - an effort to help others to be encouraged to live life as their true and authentic self.