Families of Choice

In the last entry, I talked about the limitations of the nuclear family and the overemphasis placed on being a blood relation. In this entry, I wish to talk about families of choice and how much they help or don’t help to subvert the hegemonic meaning of family.

Families of choice have a lot of meaning in the LGBTQ+ community. This is because there are so many LGBTQ+ people who are thrown out of their homes or disowned by their blood families. When this happens, blood family as the central reality is no longer an option. Families of choice are when people actively select friends that come to serve as substitute blood families. They can allegedly take the place of blood families when those relationships are either non-existent or strained.

I like families of choice in theory. I really do. They circumvent the cultural importance placed on blood families. They insist on love, nurturance and caring as the primary characteristics of a family rather than a bloodline. They prove that a nuclear family is not the only kind of family and that people can reinvent notions of family in ways that work for them.

However, I believe that families by choice work better in theory than in practice, at least in my experience. The reality that is unavoidable is that traditional families of partners and children, parents and siblings, is what is installed as normative and universal. It is the “go-to” family unit. While I love, value and appreciate my friends, it is hard for me to see them as a “family of choice.” They are often MIA when I need them or sometimes go away altogether. For better or worse, the ties that bind more normative families are much tighter and more reliable. I wish that families of choice had the same stability as a blood family but they simply don’t. It seems like they require a lot more work and a lot more imploring, neither of which particularly interest me.

The idea of just eradicating the very notion of family is impossible. It is the central institution of society. All we can do is expand, expand, and expand. Families of choice would fall under that expansion, but people need to be real about the challenges. Whenever you are going up against a cultural behemoth like the nuclear family, you are going to have a hell of a time. This is why families of choice tend to flounder. Because they simply don’t possess the institutional stability, power and importance of more traditional families.

None of this is to say that families of choice are bound for failure. There are such families that are working and successful. But I often see people holding up families of choice as an alternative to nuclear families who themselves are deeply ensconced in traditional families and are unwilling to give what it takes to make a family of choice workable for somebody not related to them. It is hypocritical to talk up the positivity of families by choice and then not reach out to people who need you to be precisely that for them.

In summation, families of choice are nice in theory but seldom work out in actuality. With that said, I don’t think we need to abandon the concept, just figure out how to actually operationalize them.