I didn’t realize what family was until I didn’t have one any longer.
To preface the remainder of my thoughts, my family members are all happy and in good health. Perhaps I have just been afflicted by a severe case of melodrama, but I am quite sure that the there are many other twenty-somethings out there who have all lost their families, too.
Family of Origin
I was born into a family of five: two parents, two siblings. Our happy quintet lived in a tan house with a red door on a curvy street in Livingston, Montana. One of the greatest gifts in my life has been this family of my origin; the people from whom I first learned about belonging.
To belong is to have a rightful place. To have a claim on the members of your group, and to have members of that group have a claim on you. A family is nothing more than a pure, unadulterated unit of human belonging
Adolescent me could have cared less about belonging. My younger days (and I’d venture to guess the younger days of just about everyone out there) were characterized by an attempt to differentiate, to break away, and to be made unique. My efforts were significantly hampered, however, by my two parents and two siblings. Because we belonged to the same family unit, they had many rightful claims on my behavior.I wanted wear shorts to church. Not fine. Because Dad said that “that’s not the way we do things around here.” I wanted to eat raw cookie dough. Not fine. “Because Mom said so.”
Fortunately, given the endemic dependence of adolescence, I also had many rightful claims on the behavior of family members. I couldn’t figure out how to file my own taxes. Fine. Because I had a claim on my Mother to help me. I was having a bad day and I needed someone to talk too. Again, fine. Because I had four people who were contractually obligated to give me a shoulder to cry on.
While an active, live-in member of my family of origin, I remember longing for my twenty-somethings, when the Hobbesian chains of the familial contract would be loosed, and I would be free to make my own place in the world.
My twenty-somethings are upon me now, and the Hobbesian chains of the family contract have rightfully been loosed. My parents and my siblings don’t know what I do unless I tell them. Bank account permitting, I could leave tomorrow and go anywhere and do anything I wanted. No one has the rightful claim to stop me. This, the freedom about which the world’s adolescents are dreaming.
Let me now, speaking now from the other side, tell them all that it is not all that is cracked up to be.
There are three phases of belonging in a human life, defined by the family unit with they are associated. The first is the family of origin, or the family into which we are born. The third is the family of creation, or the family we build together with our spouse. In between these clearly defined first and third phases lurks a second, which I will charitably label as “transition.” Transition is the ambiguous, “who in the world do I think I am anyway” phase that Someone decided to stick in between the family of origin and the family of creation. Self-discovering-forward-thinking-time-of-your-life-whatever, it’s lonely out here.
The ever-present belonging of our families of origin leaves us when we leave home. People say a lot about how college is different than high school, and the one thing they don’t say is that in college, there is no belonging. When you settle in for the first night of freshman orientation, your roommate is not contractually obligated to listen to you. You have no right to insist that she provides a shoulder to cry on. Unless you’re great at making friends, she probably won’t help you with your taxes, either. What is one caught in the ambiguous stage between Origin and Creation to do?
The Family of Transition
One ought to make a family. Our families of origin are the only ones that are given to us. The other two Families we must find for ourselves.
The path to a family of creation is easy: locate spouse, make children. Finding the family of transition, though, is tough. Tough to find the someone or the someones for whom you are willing to make significant commitments of time and effort and love. The someone or someones for whom you are willing to stay up for late-night, tear-wrought phone calls. The someone or someones who are willing to provide a shoulder for you to cry on, even though they are under no obligation to do so.
This piece is written in honor of my two Families. My parents and my siblings, who stuck with me when no one else would. My dear friends — my Family of Transition — for whom I would give the world. With God’s grace, may I one day create a family which affords my children the same sense of belonging that my two families have given me.