Issue #55: Belonging and Kinship
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.” – Richard Bach
My favorite holiday is Friendsgiving: cozy food and warming beverages, snuggly, soft sweaters and stretchy waistbands to accommodate said food and beverages, and the family-like friendships minus the family-like emotional burdens of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps because of the pandemic or maybe because holiday movies stopped being the exclusive domain of Hallmark and Lifetime, I stumbled across a mountain of articles talking about how to survive holiday family gatherings with your mental health intact. Ranging from teaching people about setting boundaries to inspiration for responding to passive aggressive comments with #ThanksgivingClapback, many of us no longer subscribe to the adage “blood is thicker than water.”
Family is the first and therefore foundational source of belonging. Developmental psychologists and pediatricians agree that the first five years lay the ground work for how we relate to others around us and how we learn to engage with the larger world. This is an excellent teaching model for ensuring humans have secure, healthy attachments, live and express themselves authentically, and exercise agency to take risks and pursue purpose when those young children are raised by parents and other caregivers who are capable of providing emotional safety and modelling those secure attachments, authenticity and agency. Unfortunately, those are not the families that many of us grew up in. When family is unhealthy, dysfunctional and/or abusive, they reproduce dysfunction and perpetuate trauma for the children they raise.
Thanksgiving is such a bizarre holiday to celebrate given the atrocious historical roots. But it’s emblematic of the ways in which family can and does produce death and trauma like the colonialists did with indigenous people who welcomed them. The holiday also serves as a catalyst for emotional connection and finding meaning through recognition of gratitude. Instead, many of us experience the holiday as a multi-generational, shame-ridden tug of war over who should settle down or battles over stolen inheritances and familial curses. Cultural norms tell us that the family we didn’t choose should take precedence over other loved ones in our lives or even ourselves because “family is everything.” This false dichotomy pits our individuality and individual needs against the collective needs of the family unit.
Unfortunately, the tension between the individual and collective is not limited to family alone. On a societal level, countries like the United States are hellbent on upholding the cult of individualism even in a global pandemic, cruelly leaving individuals to fend for themselves against a threat that ultimately puts all of us at risk. The response doesn’t have to be either/or, but rather both/and.
Early in the pandemic, we had a stronger understanding of interconnectedness. By protecting ourselves with masks, we also protected others. That saving ourselves could save each other. That our individual choices to meet our individual needs could also create collective choice and serve collective needs.
It’s more apparent than ever that our approach to family and kinship is shifting and need to shift in search of greater belonging.
Rather than families of circumstance or biological determination, we have families of choice that we make and remake in adulthood.
Rather than commitments of obligation predicated on the family tree, we see commitments of intention based on shared values and norms.
Rather than cultures based on tradition and heritage, we see cultures pursuing meaning making.
Families have a way of making the tension between choosing self and choosing others more high-stakes than any other relationship. Closeness can be coercive. You can see this is the way that toxic employers use the language of family to compel workers to work excessively or unsafely. But closeness can also serve as a mirror for unmet needs. If we want to be connected with others with close, intimate, family-like bonds, we need to learn how to have those same bonds with ourselves before we seek and form them with others. We have an opportunity and responsibility to reshape how we pursue belonging through family. We couldn’t choose our families or how to show up in our families as children but we now have more freedom to pursue belonging. We have to be our own model.
As my least favorite holiday, New Year’s Eve, approaches with the exponential surge in Omicron infections, I’m reminded of how our need for solitude is equally vital as our need for belonging in biological and choosen families as I contemplate who to celebrate with. (Spoiler alert: celebrating with me, myself and I.)
If belonging is an individual need collectively fulfilled, solitude is a collective good individually fulfilled. So in this last issue of Future of Belonging for 2021, I invite you to use New Year’s Eve and the rest of the winter holidays as an opportunity for introspection in solitude. As much as solitude may have been unwelcome this season, it’s a gift to families everywhere to choose yourself.