What Defines A Family?

My 4-year-old and I were at our local grocery store and the cashier struck up a conversation with him. He is the world’s biggest flirt and was basking in her attention. They were exchanging names and when she asked his, he told her with the formality of a seasoned politician his first and last name. When she asked mine, I responded in similar fashion. My son looked at me astonished, “That’s my last name, not yours.” The cashier and I laughed. “It’s my last name too buddy, because we are family. Families share last names.” Before I could blink he said, “So Daddy and Maggie and Charlie all have the same last name as us?”

I froze. How could I be so careless? Why would I say something that doesn’t necessarily define a family at all, especially not ours? Maggie and Charlie are from my previous marriage and carry their father’s last name.

How exactly do I explain to him what defines a family?

Is it the people to which you are born? My parents divorced when I was three years old. I saw my father sporadically after but recall with such clarity details about our time together. He had a Gilda Radner poster hung above his bed. The Friday nights I spent with him we made Chef Boyardee pizza and watched The Dukes of Hazzard. When he dropped me back with my mom the last thing he would say to me was “Love you kiddo, TTNF.” Ta-Ta-For-Now. Then he stopped coming. I was ten years old and my mom told me he’d moved away. It was as if he’d vanished into thin air. I was his child. I belonged to him, in name and blood, yet it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps it is the people you choose to surround yourself with. I have friendships in my life that feel closer to me than some traditional families. They have been my lifelines for decades as I stumbled through creating a life of my own. We have rallied around each other through divorce, miscarriage, infertility, and aging. There have been cancer scares, pregnancy scares (back when all of us combined couldn’t have changed a diaper), and a million everyday dramas. We are not related but have managed to create an unbreakable bond I am certain will last a lifetime.

When I remarried, my husband and I talked at length about what we envisioned for our marriage and eventual blended clan. I wanted someone to be my biggest fan. He wanted to be heard and know his opinion mattered. My children need a safe place to be themselves, to know they are loved and supported (even when we were screaming at each other about who dropped my toothbrush and left it floating in the toilet). We are a family. A blended, messy, beautiful family-no common last name required.

In today’s society, there are more unmarried couples raising children; more gay and lesbian couples marrying and starting their own families. There are single men and women having children and people living together without getting married or having kids. All of them, all of us, chose to create a family without traditional definitions. We elected to build a foundation of our own choosing, based on what family means to us.

And that is a beautiful thing.

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