When I first met my blood relatives I was 20 years old and having difficulty in taking in the enormity of 5 aunts and uncles, and around 15 cousins. I asked my grandmother what relation two smaller children in the big family gathering were to me.
‘Humph’ she said. Over 70 and never one to mince her words. ‘They’re no relation to you.’
As an adoptee, I felt an inevitable sting of rejection. Until I realised later that the two children were the offspring of a step cousin, who although had been raised since tiny by my aunt, were still not considered ‘blood’. I, who had been adopted out at birth, was. And blood trumped environment in my grandmother’s eyes. I was the insider, they were not. My uncle was allowed to be family by marriage, but the ‘baggage’ he brought with him – two children from his previous marriage – was given a lower status.
But not everyone in the family feels the same way. My half-brother and his girlfriend are expecting their first child and we are all delighted.
‘How does it feel? he asked our mother ‘to have the first ‘proper’ grandchild?’
My children do not count in his eyes as ‘proper’ because I did not grow up with our mother. Nor presumably, does the son of my step-sister, their half-sister who grew up with her mother. For him there are two criteria for family. Blood AND environment. I don’t blame him, or even feel hurt. Because my view on who is and who is not family, has been fluid over the years.
It comes from being adopted, and then choosing to live polyamorously. My other boyfriend with whom I have no children, I now count as family. We all operate as a unit and we schedule our lives together accordingly. But he has neither blood nor marriage to give him status, and environment might come over years – but who’s to say how many? 2? 6? When will we prove ourselves as legitimate? It means that as far as I can see, they will never accept him as anything other than baggage… which right now would be a step up from ignoring his presence in my life completely.
I know it’s not the right reason, and I would never act upon it… but sometimes I want us to have a child, or marry, just so they have no choice but to give him that status. They cannot and would not deny those bonds no matter how uncomfortable the situation makes them. But the fact that I am even led to think this thought makes me angry. My family’s attitude to family makes me angry even if that conflict of attitudes is simply a product of how we were all brought up.
This year after living, laughing and loving together we spend Christmas apart. My partner and our children in the UK and my boyfriend with his mother, brother and friends in Sweden. He misses us. We miss him. My children miss him, even if we’ve spent a week apart in the past. It’s not about the amount of time, it’s about the fact that Christmas is a time to be with family. And part of mine is missing, not through choice but because we all define family differently. Were I to insist that my boyfriend be here, my brothers would – I suspect – simply not show up. My mother would spend Chistmas tense and miserable. It’s not for their sake that I shoulder the burden myself, but for my children who adore their grandmother (and who regards them very much as ‘proper’ grandchildren – they are after all ‘blood’).
I accept their right to look the other way. But at a certain point in time, I can envisage their difficulty in accepting my boyfriend as an enfringement on his rights to be recognised as an equal person in the relationship. And for me those rights trump blood, environment and everything else.
My very British family is a stickler for duty. It has both good and bad sides. They cannot be overtly rude, so if they were to meet my boyfriend they would have to acknowledge him. At the same time, their Britishness makes them avoid conflict like the plague. And if it carries on this way, then the first time they are ever likely to meet is on an occassion where duty obliges them to and there’s only three such events. A birth. A wedding. A funeral.
Christmas, much to my sadness, is not one of them.