Archive for October, 2011

What makes a family?

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I often ruminate on who constitutes family, and how they get demarcated as such. Two people can be legally recognized as having a familial link if they’re related through blood, marriage or adoption. But what about people who are more than friends, but not legally family? The law doesn’t – and I suspect can’t – cover all the ways families are defined. Are there solutions to the problem of people who are practically-family being legally non-family?

I got started on this topic when I met my brother, Eric. We are not biologically or legally related. We were merely two strangers who met in high school. We quickly became best friends. Neither one of us had much biological family, but my mom loves us both, and I wanted him to move into the spare bedroom and live with us forever. Five years later, he did. He immediately became irreplaceable part of the family. Having a brother is even more awesome than I thought it would be.

Consider the example of my mom and my paternal aunt. They’ve been in each others lives since my parents wed in 1965. The day my dad died 16 years ago, their 30 years of being family to each other, of celebrating holidays together and laughing at inside jokes and making plans, from a legal standpoint, simply dissipated. Of course, it didn’t change their actual relationship. They still celebrate holidays together and laugh at inside jokes and make plans. They introduce themselves as siblings, like Eric and I do. And, as with Eric and me, it’s not quite the truth.

About the only time our lack of legal relationships might be an issue is when one of us goes to the hospital. Fortunately, no one has ever given us the side-eye when we tell the ER doctor we’re all immediate family. I think it helps that we don’t look dissimilar. We’re all white; I suspect there is some privilege at play. I also suspect that the ER doctor doesn’t give half a crap as long as the patient isn’t objecting.

If I were in some catastrophe, my mom can make my medical choices for me. I am totally happy with this. If my aunt Jane or my mom were incapacitated, the responsibility for their decisions would fall to me alone. Functionally, it wouldn’t make a difference because Eric and I see eye-to-eye most of the time, but it reinforces the erroneous notion that Eric’s not really family.

If Eric were to be incapacitated, his granny in Florida would make his medical decisions. She’s a lovely lady and I trust her judgment. I hope that she would continue to lie for the rest of us, and say that we’re his immediate family, so that we could be with him in the hospital. But she might not. It reinforces the erroneous notion that we’re not really Eric’s family. I definitely don’t think we, his adoptive family, should be privileged over his natal family. We’re not in competition, we’re a team. We all love Eric and want the best for him. I think having all his family – biological or otherwise – nearby to love him and support during an illness is in his best interest.

I like Eric’s granny. She’s kind and funny. She was always hospitable when I flew out to her house in Ohio to see Eric when we were in high school. I certainly care for her, but what is our relationship to eachother? What is she to me? What am I to her? How does this informal adoption affect the people beyond our immediate nuclear family? Shall I tell my distant cousins I’ve only met a couple times they have a new cousin?

When you bring someone into your family though marriage, traditionally you have a big ceremony to get both families acquainted with one another. When you birth or adopt a child, you traditionally send out birth announcements. When we adopted Eric, we did no such thing. In part, because there was no one moment when we were formally joined. But now that it is as formal as it will ever be, does it make sense to send out similar announcements? Even though all our close friends and family already know?

Apparently you can adopt an adult (which lead me to discover the awesome blog Related Topics). As with childhood adoption, it severs all ties to the previous family. Surely there are cases where that is preferable, just as surely as there are cases where it’s not.

I don’t have any idea how to work out all the questions mutual-adoption (as opposed to one family adopts a person to the exclusion of another family) would raise. Who gets to make the adoptee’s medical decisions? Would this person potentially have four parents? Six, if adopted by a third family? If someone in a mutual-family adoption had to make a family tree, what would it look like? Who would be Eric’s adoptive father? My biological father, who died before Eric and I met? Would it even be necessary for adoptive parents to come in pairs? Does it even make sense to continue to use parent-child terms to describe these new familial relationships? To issue a new birth certificate as opposed to a newly-minted certificate that shows both the birth relationships and the newly-chosen family relationship?

Perhaps it’s already possible to go to a lawyer and have a document drafted that takes effect in the event my illness, urging all involved to expedite Eric to me because he’s a vital part of my family. A solution like that – although prohibitively expensive – would allow a person to pick and choose the various parts of familial privileges they want to share with this person (making medical decisions, hospital visitations, inheritance).

I don’t know, but I’m posting it here both to work out my own thoughts and to solicit others’ ideas.