Our Many Families

We each get three families: The one we are born into, the one including people who help us survive and thrive as we grow up, and the one we choose ourselves through our experience and values. If we are lucky we can include in our chosen family people from the first two, but birth families can be toxic and survival families sometimes wear out.

My natal family was splintered by WWII and our immigration from London to a farm in Spokane. Neglect, abuse, alcohol, poverty, and finally exclusionary in-laws shredded what was left. (I had once counted on my only sibling, but in order to keep the peace in his new family, I needed to disappear.)

By age 6, I think I understood that I was alone. Not quite, because I have always shared my life with animals. I loved them all—my horse Lucky Lady, Goldie the dog, and Quackie the duck. Left alone, I was free to wander our rural neighborhood. I delivered the early morning paper on horseback when I was 10. Those morning rides gave me determination and independence.
But it handicapped me, too: I developed a fear of dependence, a love of solitude, and a desire for a Norman Rockwell life. I was determined to go it alone but still believed in that family dream. I remember walking home after school at dusk, seeing “real” families through their lighted windows.

My second family were the adults who stepped in—those wonderful volunteers for Girl Scouts, 4-H, the good teacher, the welcoming neighbor, the supportive coworker. They helped me get through school and be successful at work. I regret not keeping them closer. Even as an adult, I did not understand how valuable these friends were.

The good thing is I had a son at 20. We stayed close and then my daughter-in-law invited me to the birth of Kaito, my first biological grandchild. When I saw that sweet face emerging, it was primal. He and his sister are everything I had ever wanted. We are now, 10 years later, a close, loving family.

When I began to grow up in my 40s, I decided to move away from the competitive miasma of my career and political life. I was lonely and I realized that it was up to me, not happenstance, to build a chosen family. I invited some women I met casually to a sort of club, like a book club but more. We started out 25 years ago as a no-guilt, irreverent, good-deed group. We developed trust, comfortable interdependence, and a desire to play together whenever possible. The partners of these strong women agreed to go along. What choice did they have?

These women are so special that I do not have the words to describe the impact they have had on my life. I trust them completely. In all our years together, not one has hurt me in any way. They helped me through my grief when my husband died. They accepted my new partner. They formed a girl group and sang Love and Happiness at my wedding. They are the kindest people I have ever known. If this sounds like a tribute, it is. My friends have given me what I never had before. Plus, they are all a few years younger than me.

I have other younger friends, too: students I have mentored or who have worked with me plus the children of my friends. I have a “bestie” who I met when we were on a panel 15 years ago. I was so impressed with her perspective that I pursued her until I became her friend. We talk about the world and family and we take care of each other.

OK, your turn. How is your family? By now you know the trade-offs between our need for friendship, work, and solitude. Do you have some friends from your natal family? Do you have friends from school or work, friends of long standing? Who have you added to your family and why? Did you figure out how to make and keep friends, whether chosen or accidental? Do you give this family priority?

Every day we have chances to build family now that we know what we value. I have learned to be available for friendship, to choose friends carefully, to never compete or criticize, and to make the effort to schedule time together.

I hope you started your third family earlier than I did because time together creates a special love and intimacy. My third family started when I was 50. I wasted a lot of time figuring out the basics of family and I walked over too many hot coals to get here. I believe if you keep your mind and heart open to relationships, despite past pain, your family can grow. Remember Field of Dreams. If you build it …

As long as we can put our arms around some combination of children, grandchildren, partners, and friends we can hold it all together until the end. And of course, a furry companion is a necessary part of my family. Now I have Alfie, as in What’s it All About, Alfie, who insists on sitting on my lap and makes it hard to tap these keys. That’s my backup plan: If my lifetime efforts to build a family come to naught, I will always have an Alfie.


Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.

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