New words for family

There is something that is often disconnected between the terms we use to describe family relationships and the reality of what our relationships actually are.

In theory, your family includes the people with whom you are closest. To try to boil it down to something somewhat quantifiable, I would like to suggest that the people with whom you are closest are the people that you interact with the most. Not to say that this has to be continual. For example, old friends who do not see each other for years may yet be close friends because of the years that they did spend together. Our parents, who raised us, are close to us because of the comprehensive interaction (e.g. loving touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts). By the same reasoning, siblings tend to become like old friends since they interacted with each other from a very young age.

But while the ideal situation is that our parents continue to love each other deeply and stay together, and that our siblings remain close as well, this is not the reality for many people. Divorce affects countless lives. Some people have lost siblings or another dear family member. Sometimes the loss is not the death of the person but the death of the relationship.

On the other hand, we might form a close relationship with a roommate or some other friend such that we feel closer to them than we have felt to our blood relations. And through programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, we might find someone who is more of a parent to us than our biological parents. But we do not honor friends and mentors as family by counting them equal to our blood relatives. Furthermore, we do not honor other close relationships as family by giving them equal permanence to family. Typically, once one is in a family they cannot ever cease to be a part of it, only become separated by time or distance.

Similarly, should we still refer to people who are not actively involved in a family role by a term which implies that they fulfill their family role? For example, if your biological father is out of your life most of the time, and an uncle is more of a father to you than your biological father, would it not be better to refer to the uncle as your father?

Since we refer to our biological parents as mom and dad, if one or both of them are absent or abusive, we inherit that idea of what a father or mother is. We then carry for the rest of our lives the definition of mom or dad that we received from our biological parents. But perhaps, instead, when we find someone who is a good father or a good mother to us, we should think of them as if they were our real parent. It might help to heal the sins that our biological parents visited upon us. Can we rewrite our family history? Or perhaps graft ourselves onto a new family?

In our present language and culture, the words mother and father mean one thing to someone who was cared for well by their biological parents and another thing to someone who was not. I want to ask if there should be a new word for these family relationships. Can or should we change our language so that we have words that describe the relationship we have with other people we might like to consider as family? If someone I call a friend teaches me many things and invests in my life, is such a person merely a friend? Must I go through some formal paperwork and be adopted to become family?

What if they are more like a sibling to me? What if this person and I are closer than anyone I traditionally refer to as family? Should I not consider them to be family since we each have our own families? Is marriage the only way to make two adults into family?

For that matter, in this age of becoming gender neutral and accepting the equality of sexual orientations, are there still traditional roles between couples? If a man stays home and takes care of the kids while the woman works a day job, we might say, to the emasculation of the man, that she wears the pants in that home. For couples who are not following traditional gender norms, it might not be kind to them to judge what role each of them should have for a proper relationship. But if the roles still exist, it would be useful to have gender-neutral terms to describe the roles or even how the relationship functions between the couple. New words for these relationships may be enriching to our language.

It would be nice if we had terms to describe who is a father to us, who is a mother to us, who is a sister to us or who is a brother to us. We can describe it by saying, “He is a brother to me,” but this lacks the possessive. I have a mom, I have a dad and I have a sister. When one can say that they “have” something and it can include a part of them, such as their arm, head, eyes, etc. It shows the closeness of the relationship. Perhaps the solution is not to change our language but to instead open up our culture so that close friends may become family. Like a kind of adoption of adults. Something that is binding.