30 @ 30: chosen families [#3]

What I've been trying to do in this series is reflect on the ways in which I have changed between "then" (my childhood and young adulthood) and "now" (at age thirty). Yet there are some aspects of my life that I think have maintained a strong consistency in terms of underlying values or inclinations. To some extent, I realize that we humans feel compelled to look back at our own autobiographies and seek continuity (thus the ever-popular emphasis on the innate nature of sexual orientation, which I'm going to tackle in a few weeks). However, our narratives of childhood development also often describe childhood as something of a foreign country, wholly different from the experience of being an adult. Obviously the truth lies somewhere murkily in between.

This post on chosen families explores the remarkable consistency of my own internal (not always entirely conscious) vision of what sort of family and community I long to be a part of as I grow up and grow older.

During the first year I was living in Boston (my first permanent move away from West Michigan), I had a particularly vivid dream. I don't, as a general rule, have very exciting and/or deeply symbolic dreams. This one, however, I recalled with uncharacteristic clarity when I woke up. In the dream, I was a middle-aged woman with a teenaged son. I lived and worked in some sort of sprawling farmhouse doing some sort of social justice activism (the dream was unclear on exactly what, or I have forgotten). The dream centered around a dinner party at this house.

Maybe the house was something like this.
Lined with bookcases, obviously.
At the dinner table were myself and my son, a woman who in the dream was my closest friend from childhood, her children, the woman's abusive husband -- from whom she had come to my home to escape -- and the father of my son, who had not been present in our lives for some years. Possibly since the child had been born.

Over the course of the dinner and the after-dinner mingling, a couple of important things happened. I told the abusive husband he was not welcome in my home if he intimidated his wife, and he left -- leaving his wife and children to live with me. I also remember a conversation with the father of my child wherein it was clear we were on warm, companionable terms, but that he would not be staying with us or acting as a hands-on parent to the child we had brought into the world. In the dream, I was comfortable with that. What I remember more than anything else is the pride with which I presided over the home-space that was mine and served as a refuge for the people who came to stay with me, as long as they were kind to one another. Bullying behavior was not tolerated, and those who remained in the space were caring and supportive of one another. It didn't matter that our made family was a household headed by two women (the implication was that my childhood friend -- or possibly more than a "friend"? -- would remain, with her children), with children at different life-stages and one father who would drift in and out of the home-space, both part of it and not entirely at home.

The dinner looked something like this.
Also imagine the final feast in "Mostly Martha"

Obviously this was just one dream, and its details make rather murky sense (if sense at all). I don't read it as a portent of literal experiences to come. Yet part of why I took note of the dream at the time I had it was the way in which it fit in with a decades-long pattern of my imaginings in which my created family spaces are far from heteronormative.

As a child (say between ages of six and twelve), I wrote and told countless stories about chosen families. Some of these stories involved orphans banding together to establish a home. Some of these stories were more elaborate imaginings, proto-fan fiction if you will, in which I brought all of my favorite fictional characters together under one roof in a parallel world where we maintained a sprawling estate called Willowbanks. There were pairings within that parallel universe, and children conceived and birthed ... but though in those days my conscious sexual pairings were all opposite-sex, just as important as the couplings were the same-sex intimate friendships and sibling bonds (I read a lot of British children's literature that generally specializes in sibling groups ... the Pevencies, the Walkers, the Blacketts, the Bastables, etc.). Ours was a world in which the adults all cooperatively parented the children and one was just as likely to fall asleep in the bed of an intimate female friend as with one's husband.

As a teenager, I wrote fantasy novels. Long fantasy novels. In these novels, likewise, themes of sibling relationships, intimate female friendships, lovingly detailed descriptions of the home-spaces, and sprawling relationship networks dominated. I remember one particular saga (I wrote at least five novels in this universe) involved a pair of teenage protagonists, male and female (the girl was transparently me), who make their way into a fantasy world universe in which they have to save the heir to the throne blah blah blah your typical fantasy novel plot elements. What I spent the most time on, however, was describing in loving detail the time my two protagonists spent in the home of their mentor. She was a powerful mage who lived inside a gigantic living tree with a central staircase and rooms that moved and changed as needed. She lived alone, her husband having died in some magical battle (I forget the details), and was pregnant with their only child. The me-character was definitely as (if not more) interested in this mage than she was in her fellow protagonist whom I assumed the plot dictated her falling in love with. The mage, the two teenagers, the infant, and the mage's relatives (who moved in and out of the story and the tree house) lived and supported one another as needed throughout the saga ... and separation from the place and the group often meant intense agony for the characters involved.

Part of what has always drawn me to feminist and queer spaces has been the willingness of people in those spaces to question what constitutes a family. I'm not exactly sure where this interest in alternatives to the heteronormative family structure originates, since I come from (and thoroughly enjoyed being part of) a basically, well, heteronormative family. My dad was the full-time wage earner. My mother was the full-time parent. They've been married for over thirty-five years. I was the eldest of three kids and we lived in a home my parents bought just before they got married. Yet I'm going to go out on a limb here and argue that the way my parents chose to structure of family life (particularly as parents who chose to home educate their kids) actually encouraged me to seek out alternative structures. My childhood encouraged me to believe in the power of close sibling relationships and cross-generational relationships that weren't necessarily dictated by hierarchical power dynamics. Our circle of close family friends included single adults, single-parent families, families with adopted children. We maintained a somewhat open-door policy when it came to folks moving in and out of our home, joining the core family members for dinner, etc.  (I mean this somewhat literally: I didn't possess a house key until I was in my twenties because my parents never locked the door except when we went away on family vacations). Our household did have a clear sense of "parents" and "children," with parents as care-takers and children as, well, children, who participated to the best of their abilities but were not expected to be adults.  Yet there was never the sense that in order to be a legitimate family, or a family that met the needs of every individual member, there had to be one father breadwinner, one mother caretakers, and children all with clearly delineated responsibilities. We kinda made it up as we went along, improvising as needs and abilities changed.

Which I think is why my (on the surface) heteronormative upbringing fostered openness in both my child-self and my adult-self to look beyond the expected structure of things and ask "what is the arrangement that would work well for all of the people involved here?" In fact, beyond a willingness to ask I'd say it was a nearly overwhelming impulse to come up with a circle of care that meets everyone's needs -- as long as they are willing to participate in the production and reproduction of that circle of care. (My mother would tell you this impulse to care was evident months after I was born and attempting to care for other infants our weekly playgroup.) The impulse recurs, resurfaces: in my childhood fantasies about the parallel universe of Willowbanks; in my adolescent fiction about magical families; in my subconscious dreamings about a future home in which all those who are willing to regard one another with lovingkindness are welcome.


  1. Anna, I'm really enjoying this series, and this post in particular. Reading it made me think how many people act on the assumption that the way they have chosen to live their life (heteronormative or not) is THE best way, which is of course a fallacy. A fallacy I have always appreciated you and your family in particular for rejecting.

  2. @Greensparrow Glad you're enjoying them! They're a little bit different (and more personal) than the stuff I've been writing for a few years now ... it's both kinda fun and also a little scary. So glad to be getting positive responses from my readers!