When my first son was a week old, my husband and I dressed him in candy-cane stripes and took him to a gathering at my in-laws’ a few days before Christmas. Seven days post-delivery, my breasts were leaking and my body was sore. I was not in the mood for parties, especially during flu season. But my husband’s family insisted, so I acquiesced.
Once we were there, my mother-in-law took my son from my arms and whisked him away, tickling his belly, laughing. “Come meet your family, we’re all you’ve got,” she told him.
For the next 30 minutes, my newborn was passed from one stranger to the next. Finally, I had an excuse to retrieve him because he needed to be fed. I found him in the arms of a woman I’d never met, who didn’t seem to realize he was mine.
I retreated to a back bedroom to nurse my baby ― a skill I was still fumbling to learn. Sitting behind a locked door in a house that wasn’t mine, trying to cover myself so I could convince a tiny screaming human to latch onto my sore nipples, I fought back tears. I did not have a family of my own, so who was I to say how Christmas with my son should look? But nothing about being in a house full of strangers provided the sense of home I’d envisioned one day having.
Growing up, family was an ever-changing construct. My parents divorced before I started preschool, my mother died before my 10th birthday, and my dad remarried. The marriage was short-lived, and after a painful and abrupt unraveling of this new family, my brother and I spent a stretch of time with our grandparents. Within a few years, cancer came for my grandmother, as it had my mother. After she died, my brother moved to Alaska with my dad, and I moved in with my ex-stepmother.
For years, our relationship was like that of a mother and daughter. But I’d become a teenager with attachment issues and a chip on my shoulder shaped by a decade of loss. I never stopped looking for loose threads, pulling on them, waiting for this new version of family to unravel.
Eventually the relationship became unhealthy for both of us, and as painful as it was, we faded in and out of each other’s lives and became estranged. Christmases afterward were difficult, and it took years before I could cut down a tree or listen to Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album ― things we had done together. Having lost contact with my off-the-grid dad and brother in the tumult of my late teens and early 20s, I grappled with my definition of family. More specifically: Who I was without one?
As a kid, I felt like the misfit without parents who was constantly shuffling from one place to the next, not having a place to call home the way others did. In high school, I was the only kid I knew who worked full-time and didn’t live with family. For most of my adult life, I wondered if my lack of roots was my fault. Maybe if I’d been a better kid, an easier teenager, I’d have the family ties I imagined everyone else did.
But I know now that there are millions of people like me ― disconnected from family for myriad reasons, most not within their control, but some by choice to escape toxic or harmful relationships.
Celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Aniston have publicly shared estrangement stories, and the topic has made recent headlines in major news outlets, sparking conversations about complex families. Google data shows that searches for terms related to estrangement are on the rise. More than 25% of U.S. families are affected by severed family ties, but studies are limited, because many adult children carry shame and pain about family disconnection and don’t speak about it openly.
I felt like the only one who’d lost a parent as a child, but of the 75 million kids in the U.S., about 12 million grow up in blended families, with more than 1 million losing one or both parents by the age of 15. After a primary caregiver dies, it’s not uncommon for family dynamics to shift and sever. New York Times bestselling memoirist Cheryl Strayed has written in her memoir ”Wild,” and spoken on her podcast “Dear Sugars,” about how the pain of losing her mother was only magnified by the resulting estrangement from her stepfather and the distance with siblings.
Now, I am married with two boys of my own, and memories of my childhood holidays are fuzzy and pieced together with old Kodak photos: snippets of tinsel on trees, snow-white ice skates, my brother’s hand in mine in front of a towering evergreen. I worry about my lack of extended family, that my kids are shortchanged somehow. I fear someday they may resent me for the unraveled threads of my life.
And on top of the shame of estrangement, I feel guilt for not being able to offer a large extended family to my children ― especially during the holidays.
The best way forward for me has been to focus on what I can give them. The neighbors who’ve become like family over a million small conversations through fences, in open doorways, over coffee ― who host holiday art projects and cookie decorating and help my youngest make a “super secret” Christmas present for his dad and me. The friends who are like siblings, who show up at holiday music recitals or join us on sidewalk curbs to watch the annual holiday parade. Old nannies who visit with their own children and never miss a birthday. The people who would do anything for my family, holidays or not.
“Chosen family” and ”found family” are terms that have gotten a lot of buzz in the past few years. Newer generations are reimagining family beyond the antiquated Merriam-Webster definition of children and parents living together in one household. Chosen families encompass more than cohabitation, marriage, and child-rearing. The family we choose extends to those connected not by blood, adoption, or marriage, but through abiding friendship and the choice to love and support one another unconditionally. Found family can fill a void left by a person’s family of origin through rejection, dismissal, or death. For those who face rejection from their traditionally defined family, a chosen family can provide a sense of belonging.
For those of us with complicated family backstories, the holidays are often a season of uncomfortable conversations. The simple question “Are you going home for the holidays?” has always made me bristle. It used to reopen old wounds, but as time passed, the bonds I’ve found in friendship, marriage, and motherhood have helped me heal.
I don’t think my mother-in-law meant to hurt me with her comment about family. I think she and I just define the word differently. For me, it’s limiting to believe that the family we have at any given moment is the only one we’ll ever know. Family isn’t static; it shifts and changes over time, just as we do.
When my husband and I got engaged, it was against the backdrop of San Francisco in December. The holiday atmosphere made it feel all the more special and romantic. Now, we take our boys to the city to look at the window decorations, ice skate, and drink hot cocoa. My husband and I have found a way to weave pieces of the holidays we knew as kids throughout the season, like cutting down our tree and listening to Stevie Wonder. We always make sure our boys are home on Christmas Eve to hang stockings, ice cookies, and wake up in their beds on Christmas morning.
Despite the lack of roots on my side, I hope the traditions we’ve established for our children will thread through the holidays of their future selves and family ― however they choose to define it.
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