What Does ‘Family’ Mean?

My mother taught me what she knew in the crucial early years of my life. Up until I was 6 or 7, I thought she was a superhero, a person who went out to work and brought food home.

But then she had a car accident and stopped working. She started doing drugs and selling our food stamps for drug money. She’d smoke with us kids in the house, and we ended up in the hospital with asthma. I still looked up to her: When you’re little, you don’t know it’s your mother’s fault that there’s no food and you’re breathing smoke.

No one else can know how I looked taking my first steps, and the faces I made when I cried, and how I loved to read even when I couldn’t fathom the words on the page. Only my family knows how I was. Though they let me down, I think the blood tie will connect us forever. Your family knows your history and can tell you what you don’t remember. If we don’t know our history, we don’t really know ourselves.

That doesn’t mean we’re the same. My mother and other relatives shaped me by showing me what I didn’t want to be. As a teenager, I saw my family drive and lose nice cars, buy and lose houses, and make and lose family ties because of drug addiction. By the time I got to college, I knew well the downside of drugs and alcohol, so I fear and avoid them. At 21, I’m in my third year of college, with a job I love, and living in my own apartment.

I blame my family for depriving me of love, stability, and security, yet I feel forever connected to them. I hate them for not striving to be more than what they are, but I believe I will never love anyone more than I love them.

For example, my last foster mother provided what my mother did not: a home where people eat together and don’t curse and the parent wakes the kids up for school. Once I told her I was cold when I stepped out of bed in the morning, and the next day, there was a rug next to my bed. She is an angel, and she made me feel like a worthy person again.

But I will never be able to love my foster mother more than my birth mother. That’s partly because my relationship with her feels like a temporary bond. She helped me heal, but she also made it clear that her job as a foster mother ended when I turned 21.

I think most people put blood first; I worry that if I called a friend or boyfriend or mentor my “family,” they wouldn’t return the feeling—that they’d choose their blood family over me.

Maybe I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a part of my mother, or maybe I want to give my blood relatives the loyalty no one gave me. When my mother is sober, I see a beautiful person who’s smart and stands up for herself and for her kids. She simply made a lot of bad choices in her life.

I admit that I don’t fully understand what “family” means or what it requires. Maybe I just haven’t met the person who could feel like a new family to me yet. Ideally, I suppose family provides support, encouragement, moral guidance, unconditional love, and more.

Like the word “love,” people say “family” all the time, meaning very different things. In this issue of Represent, we explore who we consider family and how we decide who to let in. While I consider blood the bottom line of family, other writers say it has more to do with trust or helping or loyalty or consistency or providing a good example. These are important things to figure out as we become adults ourselves and have more control over who we spend our lives with.

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