Monday, August 25, 2003

Redefining Family

Redefining Family
Adrianne Moore

In a small bathtub at my mother’s house, as the sun began to rise, I gave birth to this tiny new being. For nine months she had grown in my belly, unfazed by the trials of my life or movements of my body. She had been nourished through the thoughtless abilities of my body and comforted by the usual sounds of its workings. She experienced life through the pale glow of light filtering through layers of skin, blood and muscle.

But the moment air hit her face, all this changed. Suddenly every movement I made, every pain I faced all became an integral part of her existence. My life was suddenly tempered by the unexplained thoughts of a newborn.

Night became a lesson in exhaustion and day a fight for sanity, as I quickly learned to forget my needs and desires and attended to those of another. Slowly, through countless sleepless nights and ever evolving diaper-washing routines, I reevaluated what it means to be a mother, a family. No longer could I accept the dichotomy of motherhood: to relinquish my own identity or fail as a mother. It became clear that the idea of family in our culture was sadly lacking.

Family meant the selfless giving of a mother, the steady presence of a father, and the distant support, or lack of it, from relatives far away. But if this was the meaning of family, I was missing something big. My mother’s presence in the middle of the night in person, and later over the phone, was imperative to my comfort. My child’s father’s chaotic lifestyle, utter confusion, and extended absence didn’t fit the bill. My own style of mothering and attachment to my child wasn’t found in mainstream parenting books.

So in rejecting the idea of ‘family’ commonly subscribed to, I had to find a new definition to identify with. Family for me was the idea of a common bond, one of blood, love, guilt, and sacrifice. Family is the people who gave you life and the people who encouraged it, though it is important to note those often are not one and the same.

A family is something that I loosely define as that to which you belong. In my pre-parent mind frame it was a loose association of blood, love and guilt ties to people whom I loved, cared for and admired to varying degrees and to whom I felt varying degrees of responsibility. My post-birth relationship to family is that of a love so fierce it makes me ill and a responsibility so great it sometimes seems unfathomable.

Becoming a mother has established in my mind the ludicrous nature of the American family and the social systems that uphold it, or more correctly, fail to uphold it. Mothers and fathers with little or no support are the norm rather than the extreme. Families with severe dysfunction have become mainstream, so much so that it often is a joke or goes without saying. We laughingly discuss the prescription medicines our mothers abuse or the beers our fathers throw back.

Family has become the excuse of our society, rather than the backbone. We blame ‘the family’ for our delinquent youth and our high crime rate, while denying the family the resources and support it needs to function properly. Family is not the great foundation it should be, but the thing from which we must escape.

So perhaps I fancy a much different definition of family. Family is the sacrifices I make in order to provide a nurturing and stimulating home for my daughter. Family is not running away from responsibility but facing it with imagination and determination. Family is supporting fellow mothers in freeing themselves from society’s imposed definitions of parenting.

Family is a society working together to raise its young. It is ending the cycles of abuse and mistrust and replacing them with healthy means of communication. It is learning to function as a unit, rather than for the individual. It is something that must be striven for and worked on, not taken and accepted.

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