Family, like love, is something done, not felt.
I’m trying to determine what is the function of a parent to an adult child. And if it’s what I think it is, I wonder who counts as a parent. Based on the actions of my biological father, a parent’s job is to win arguments, use their child’s values and even religion to manipulate them into obedience, and to demand a level of loyalty that they don’t reciprocate.
But what about the relationships I’ve cultivated with “dads” over the years? Pastors, friends’ fathers, and bosses have all stepped in as auxiliary parents when I’ve needed them. Judging from their conduct as fathers in my life, it’s fair to say that a parent’s job is to offer unconditional love, to advise without judgment, and to calm the fears that surface with each new challenge brought by adulthood.
Who is right? My biological father because of shared genetics, or my fathers of choice because of their behavior? If family is so important, why base it on something as arbitrary as progeniture?
Last October I received a voicemail from my father that upset me so much I threw my phone into the couch. I then quickly retrieved it and checked it for damage, since I don’t have the disposable income to go around destroying phones every time my father upsets me. Once I ascertained that it was fine, I updated my settings to block his number. I immediately felt better, so I then logged into Facebook and Instagram and blocked him there, too.
The most pleasure I had derived from this relationship in years came from the decision to end it.
Two weeks later I received a message from my mom that said, “Your dad thinks his texts aren’t going through. Will you text him to let him know if they are?” I took a deep, meditative breath and wrote back, “No.” It was the most empowering text I’ve ever sent.
Because it took him two weeks to even notice that I wasn’t talking to him, my dad did not put together what the precipitating event was that lead to his exile from my digital life. In the five months since I made the decision, he has not stopped trying to find out but has not once tried to apologize.
The truth is that the relationship I have with him isn’t good for me, and as an adult, I don’t have to stay in unhealthy relationships. But in the words of Angelica Pickles, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” It isn’t my job to make him feel better about his actions. It’s his job to behave in a way that makes me feel safe and cared for. Because he hasn’t and currently does not do that, I’m not going to force myself in to a capriciously ordained role of “daughter,” especially when I’m surrounded by folks who are more family to me than anyone tethered by a simple strand of DNA.
Parents are supposed to provide care, safety, and guidance. If he can’t or won’t do that, why should I remain faithful to his way of doing things, which leaves me feeling inadequate, unloved, and frequently suicidal? Our connection is compulsory.
My connection to my family of choice is stronger than iron. My first boss once held me as I cried about being verbally abused by a different boss. My inlaws bought me two necklaces for Christmas because both had my favorite animals on them and they couldn’t choose which they liked more. That same year my biological father decided to give me an ice cream maker. One of my most infamous quirks is that I truly detest ice cream.
I grew a community of people I loved and trusted by testing the waters of vulnerability with each of them. First by accepting compliments or presents readily, letting my guard down when there proved to be no strings attached. The difference between being given a gift because the giver wants you to be happy and being given a gift because the giver wants you to owe them is so significant it’s almost got a flavor.
Once this small but critical level of trust was established, I moved on to sharing personal bits of information about myself—like my religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and doubts about both. When those were accepted and, at times, nurtured, I gave more of myself.
My small but mighty group of trusted people is more than a social circle or a group of friends. They are my family. A phrase that gets thrown around a lot when you’re only close to two biological family members is “blood is thicker than water.” I like this proverb so much I’ve got it tattooed on me, but it’s the full quote that has merit: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
What is it about biology that deserves fidelity? Because someone helped physically create me, it’s all right that they didn’t emotionally sustain me? Because they gave me $20 a few times in high school, I’m supposed to let go of the dirt they threw in my face one summer?
Family, like love, is something done, not felt.
Who is my aunt: the woman who, knowing nothing about me, warned my mother that I was probably “disturbed” for painting my room neon colors in high school, or the one who to this day sends birthday cards that greet me with “Hello gorgeous”?
Shifting into my family of choice was a natural progression. I gain more of myself from them as time goes on. Whether it’s Skyping with James, whom I’ve known since my teenage years of working the drive-through at Steak N Shake together, or having grown-up slumber parties with Erin and Cherise, who have only been in my life for a few years, I find myself growing more whole as I give my energy and my time to people who help me flourish.
I called my pastor when my toilet overflowed and he talked me through turning the water valve off; he’s also helped me contact animal control for a bird that was stuck behind my refrigerator. A variety of septuagenarians and octogenarians in my congregation have gently cared for me through depression, anxiety, and health scares, as well as numerous bold and unfortunate hairstyles.
If that isn’t family, what is?
Lindsey Harris is a writer and MFA student in the best city in Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and a smelly meatbag disguised as a dog. She also teaches creative writing to middle schoolers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Story Collider Magazine and xoJane. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.