Multifaceted, multiple forms of, idealised, theorised about, sustained, rejected, government supported, imposed upon, threatened, painfully recalled, unknown, fragmented, rejoiced in, pretend, genetic, abandoned, migrated, ruined or cherished. You can be a family of one or have a family tree so large and convoluted that it threatens to form a small village and in some countries, often does.
Families – their relationships, organisation, patterns, links of obligation, meanings, structures and activities form the basis of the study of kinship in anthropology, but the fleshed out, lived experience of family life is so much more than anything a genogram can suggest. How do you really represent a relationship between a child and their aunties and uncles in Australian Indigenous communities, a link that may not be close blood, but is based on longstanding tradition and complex webs of understanding and reciprocity? How do the links of families withstand the pressures of enforced migration? And when you visit a cemetery to leave flowers and shed tears for deceased love ones, the office staff will tell you quite plainly that families only come to pay respects for a maximum of three generations, so what does this tell us about families?
Your perspective on families changes as you grow. As a baby, you’re totally dependent, as a child you see other families and wonder, and as you get older you realise that families can be totally individual in their makeup, responses and experiences. Families are the EPITOME OF CHANGE. They change as we change, and as we age our role and place marker in our own families changes too. In middle age, I’m now an orphan, but still remain the daughter of my now recently deceased mother and long dead (and long gone) father.
Do you love your family? All of them? Or hate them? Or hate some of them? We can truly only personally love and hate those we know and this points to the heightened tensions associated with intense personal relationships, their formation, existence and endings. Life is a journey and those related by blood, or spiritual kin or friends who form the nexus of your family life, these people are the ones who accompany us, sometimes only for a time, through our life. It’s often this reality that eludes us, that puzzles us as we often seek permanence, seek concreteness in our existence when none really exists. The bonds of blood (or the spirit if you’re a church goer) often constitute the closest that we really experience of that which is permanent in life. Nothing is permanent though, because even family come and go.
It is with this knowledge that I sometimes look at the faces of my children and yearn to forget that truth of life: that life is temporary, that even while our bonds are strong, resolute, unbreakable, based on the act, spirit and corporeal reality of love, that even these bonds are not strong enough to maintain an unending life. ‘This too shall pass’ I told my daughter today as she worried about going away with the school, worried about going to sleep at night away from her bed, her home, her pet, her routines and her people. ‘This too shall pass’ reminds us of the transience of life, and of the necessity for us to grab it now and live it, whatever that reality is, knowing that its shimmer of impermanence will fade too, and that much like old photos age we too shall fade…
Families can have divergent meanings for us, a truth we recognise as we move through the roles ascribed to us from when we joined them. Individual members may provide the source of much angst at various times, however, we all have a commonality that we share in our families of origin, whether they’re known or not. What is your story? What is your family? How do you epitomise your journey through life with these people? Would you even like them if they weren’t related to you? And what do you make of traditions, of family traditions? Are they part of your life? Do you continue these or remake them afresh? What are your thoughts about continuity and change? What are the values that your family and you uphold, maintain or even reject?
And what about my family? Well, I make it up as I go along – partnering, parenting, being a ‘role model’ and all that, mostly because I didn’t have any of the normal ones when I grew up. My role as a mother and wife I can create, I can carve out that story, inscribe my kind of experiences on that. But my family of origin? That’s a mixed bag; that story is coloured with migration, madness, separation, divorce, extended family life, highly problematic relations and trauma. Hence the blog.
This blog entry has come about partly in response to the lovely Blacklight Candelabra’s https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/divergent-meanings/ ongoing and very entertaining attempts at roping people in to write about themes (a much admired effort I have to say), and partly because I received a message on my phone today that said: “Family Picnic in one month’s time at a park near the city. BYO everything. We’ll have a BBQ, see you then”. My heart sank as I began to envisage excuses to not go. We may go, but why bother? I feel that by attending I’m only really there to provide completeness to my extended family’s version of that which constitutes ‘our family’. If I’m not there, and my husband and children aren’t there, there’ll be a gap. OK, only a gap of four, but a gap nevertheless that, like all family stories if not inscribed by truth will have to made up, imagined, alluded to, supposed about and decided on in my absence because it will have to be filled one way or another. This is because of the nature of families: families are fulsome things and cannot tolerate a void.
Families also don’t get mobile technology: the message came through from someone who had clearly forgotten that all the text messages that I’d received from her over the past few years were still on my phone (and probably a trail of these not-so-cute messages in clouds existed on her phone too). All it takes is a little scroll to remember the recent past, remember the last time we’d had contact and all that was said, or written. Oh, families can make your blood boil.
But that’s only when you look backwards. It’s true that it can also happen when you look forwards, but when you look to your own partner, your own children and your life in your own family, in your own (or at least the bank’s) home, you get to have a lot more say about what happens, where you go, who you see, what you do, and what happens to your own body. You can invent, create and carve out your own future in a way that the nearly dead, asphyxiating, hardened, gossiping, entrenched attitudes that came into existence and killed off your opportunities in life before you even entered the room can never do. Families can be a source of love, but they can also be a million other things that affect who you are and how you live right into the future. However one thing remains the same, the word remains loaded and while common meanings may attach themselves t the word, our experiences of families depends on our place in the queue, our perspective and our experences.