redefining family

I’ve spent the last couple days babysitting my stepsister’s stepkids. Does that make me  “Aunt Ali?” Or Just “Ali?” I’m still not sure… my family is kind of complicated.

But I guess welcome to family in the current age: most families are blended, people have half siblings or aunts and uncles they’re no longer “technically” related to because a legal marriage has been dissolved; people have in-laws or adopted children that are different ethnicities, people have uncles married to another uncle, kids grow up with split custody or in the foster system with a temporary family that may or may not be treating them well… family just looks different nowadays.

And that is something that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still stuck in my 7-year-old mindset of watching kids whose mommies and daddies still wore their wedding bands on their fingers and ate dinner at the table together, kids who had one closet, one bedroom, one set of rules, and the same schedule every week. And thinking that those kids had it made. That their lives were utopia. Because having a family unit with traditions and siblings seemed like the dream.

My life, however, looked a little different. My parents divorced when I was just five, and my dad remarried about a year later and two older sisters came with the package. My mom still hasn’t remarried, but there has been a handful of cool guys and straight up losers that have walked in and out of the picture. I had split custody – 50-50 – so I switched from house to house on a weekly basis. I had two of everything: toothbrushes, clothing, teddy bears, you name it. But the hardest part is at that time of my life, it seemed like no one else’s parents were divorced. It felt like I was the only one in my circle whose family was broken, messed up, filled with accusation and bitterness. For a long time, I used to introduce my life story, my testimony, with the phrase “I grew up in a broken home.”

I identified my family with the yuck. The “always-lets-you-down-super-embarrassing-we-have-nothing-in-common-please-stop-calling-each-other-names-where-is-my-allowance” yuck. And I looked at the kids who went home to the same house every day and just burned with envy. Because from my perspective, I had gotten the short end of the stick. I didn’t have the kind of family that has the cute little stick figures on the back windshield of their car.

And the thing with family is that you don’t get to pick them. Your cynical, bat-sh** crazy grandma or that philandering second cousin who always hits on you at family reunions may not be someone that you’d chose to interact with by choice, but hey – you’re related to them. By blood, no less. Nothing stronger than that. Viewing my friends, or my friends’ families, as my family was much more palatable than pretending mine was anything but a disappointment. That doesn’t mean that they were bad or wrong – in fact, my parents sacrificed a lot, cared for me a lot, took care of me financially, went to my concerts, befriended my friends. It just didn’t match up to the image I had in my head of what family should be like.

So you see, I carried around a big grudge towards the Lord for a long time, because He’s the one that picked my family. He chose me to be born into a family that was messy and full of yuck and baggage and hurt people and hard financial decisions and wounded bodies and bad decisions and alcoholism and divorce precedings. I definitely didn’t chose that for myself in the womb – hey, if I had had my way when I popped out, I would’ve had a pretty white unicorn awaiting my arrival in the delivery room. But in fact, I came into a mess and I resented God for it. I have carried around a lot of guilt, a lot of bitterness, and a lot of hurt for a long time, just being so pissed at God that He picked this perceivedly crappy situation and just stuck me in it.

But the reason I’m writing this post is that recent years have been a process of redefining family for me. Family is no longer a place that I have been afflicted, but a place of blessing. Being related to someone is a given, but to be a family is a choice.

There are a bunch of statistics out there about stepfamilies, divorce, remarriage, but the gist remains the same: the nuclear family has changed. Your brother may not really be your brother, or he might be blood-related but you’ve never met him. You will experience deaths of family members sooner or later. You may have had several stepfathers, each with their own set of step-grandparents and step-aunts or step-uncles. I spent so long envying this idol of what a perfect family was, with two happily married parents and at least one blood-related sibling who all ate dinner together, that I never once considered that the family I do have is not only commonplace but also beautiful.

And though technically I just have sisters because my dad signed a piece of paper with their mom, I can choose to invest in their lives, know their husbands or boyfriends, celebrate their families that are growing. And though I have aunts and uncles that I rarely get to see, I can choose to care about their lives, about their kids, about whether or not I’ll see them more than once in the next five years. And I have parents that have made mistakes, yes, but they care about me and I can choose to accept the love they know how to provide, regardless of whether or not it’s something I know how to receive. And I am so so thankful for them.

ohana means family

A quote from Lilo & Stitch (which is what that pic above is from) rings real true:

This is my family… Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”

Ultimately, it comes down to this: I know Jesus more because of them. That is the point. That is why the Lord plopped me down in this mess – so I could know what Love is and do my darndest to love the people in my life. I am thankful I am apart of my family and am choosing to be apart of it.

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