Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Family by Choice

I wrote about my mother in my last blog entry, the family member I was lucky enough to acquire at birth. When friends struggled with difficult mother-daughter relationships, I always felt like I won the lottery. As I got older we negotiated a different kind of relationship, one of a friendship of peers. On Mother's Day I began to give her cards that said how grateful I was that she was a friend as well as my mother. Because we had such a wonderful relationship, I found myself recreating it with other women of her generation. My husband's mother became a mom to me and many of my friends are my mother's age with daughters my age.

I have a close friend who is of my mother's generation. Not too long ago I gave her a card that spoke of her as part of the family that I select, the group of people who are not related by blood, but by bonds of the heart. I find it interesting that for family members one of the greatest compliments we can give is that we would select them as a friend. With non-family members it is that we would select them as family. We don't get to choose our family and so many people have at least one family member that they could never imagine being linked to were it not for an accident of birth. If we are lucky we have family members we would select as friends and if we are still luckier we have friends who become part of our extended family.

It is sometimes easier not having the bonds of family. You don't bring the baggage that comes with history. You come to it as a fully formed adult and can share your better self, not the self who used to have temper tantrums when you didn't get your way. Similarly you don't carry the history of failing to be the perfect parent you had imagined you'd be. And you don't carry the same burden of expectations, more free to let each other be who they are. The drawback is the same as the benefit. You don't start out with that shared history that can bind family members together when it's not driving them apart, the knowledge of how you've become who you are.

 My elder friend always tells me that you need to develop younger friends as you age and I am realizing that my friendships with my mother's generation are ultimately time limited. Most are in their 80s and 90s. I never chose to have children and my one regret was that I wouldn't be able to recreate the wonderful relationship I had with my mother. I realize now that I have been recreating it in a different way and in both directions.

I have always been grateful that my husband had daughters with whom he built a strong relationship. They are a wonderful fringe benefit of our relationship. When I entered the picture, I had a new role to negotiate. Who was I going to be? Stepmom seems like an odd title, too many echoes of wicked stepmothers from fairy tales. I use it for lack of a better word, but act as friend and hopefully a family member of choice, something you earn over time. I try to be there for the people I care for. I learned that from my mother. She has always given me a consistency of presence that I could depend on and has expressed her love through a willingness to offer whatever I needed, a listening ear, good judgment without judging and a belief in my better self. That is no small thing.

And so I seek to be the best of me. A listener, a problem solver, someone others can depend upon to be there and to offer whatever I can consistently and freely. Hopefully some of the gifts my mother gives me.

And I try to go with my strengths. Many years ago one of my stepdaughters had a problem with some shutters that didn't fit her windows correctly. The store refused to replace them until I wrote one of my carefully crafted letters. Instant action! I was soon dubbed the family's resident writer and editor for anything requiring carefully chosen words. Over the years I've edited school papers, drafted letters and provided career counseling and financial advice. 

With my elder friend who is legally blind I have assumed a different role. In the course of our friendship I often help her to organize files, submit medical bills on-line and read interesting articles to her. I recall my dad delighting in being able to offer his assistance to his kids as well as doing little mitzvahs for friends. It was his way of expressing his love for his family and gratitude for his friends, something that he didn't do as well in words. Perhaps I am not too different.

Recently I had a friend tell me that I never make her feel that she is an imposition on me. I was pleased to hear that, but had not thought about that as a quality of friendship. Obviously it is. We modulate our friendships to adapt to what someone is willing and able to provide and we save our deeper friendships for those who are there when we need them, who show up. On the short list of family by choice there is no such thing as imposition. So I try to be my better self with friends of my mother's generation and with the generation after me, slowly building my family of choice.

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