When my oldest son was in kindergarten, he learned that not all families are like his. My husband and I have lived with our best friend, Katie, for the past 13 years. To our three boys, she is their Kiki: part third parent, part favorite aunt and by far their preferred reader of bedtime stories. One day, when I picked my son up from kindergarten, he looked positively glum.
"What's wrong, baby?" I asked.
"Mom," he said in his solemnest voice, "not everyone has a Kiki."
I swallowed my laughter as only a parent can. "No, honey, not everyone has a Kiki. You're a very lucky boy."
"But Mom, it's so sad!"
My son can't imagine his life without his Kiki. To him, that was how a family is supposed to be set up: a mom, a dad and a Kiki. It's not exactly the most conventional setup, but it was all he knew.
But my son's questions didn't stop there. He wanted to know exactly how everyone in our lives is connected to each other. It was important to him, and we gave him all the answers he wanted. The myriad of people he calls "aunt" and "uncle" are not actually his mom's and dad's brothers and sisters, but his Uncle Harold is in fact Mom's brother.
He would often go through the family, declaring all the connections. One day, on another drive home from school, he was going through his grandparents.
"Grandma and Grandpa are Daddy's mommy and daddy," he said. "Papa is your daddy, and Sophie is Papa's girlfriend."
We had gone through all of this before, once leading to an interesting conversation about why Papa doesn't have a wife or a husband. But this time, things went into a different direction.
"And you don't have a mommy," he told me.
I was shocked and glad that we were at a red light. My mother has been absent for most of my adulthood. The reasons for this are complicated and not worth going into, but if my mother were to walk into the room, none of my sons would have any idea who she is. And although I am used to this fact and accept it, actually hearing the words "you don't have a mommy" threw me for a loop. In my son's eyes, I had no mother. And what stopped me in my tracks was the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he was correct. I had never had a relationship with the woman who bore me that could be described as maternal. This truth had me so thrown that I couldn't think of a response. My son didn't need one and went on.
"Why isn't Sophie your mommy?"
"We'll, baby," I started, gathering my thoughts, "I didn't grow in her belly like you grew in mine."
"But that doesn't matter," he insisted. We have friends who have adopted their children, so he knew that pregnancy isn't compulsory for motherhood.
"Um, Sophie wasn't there when I was growing up the way your mommy and daddy are for you," I explained. This seemed to satisfy him, and he went on to another topic. My brain did not move along so easily.
My father and brother and my husband's parents and sister don't live in our city. They aren't our go-to people for the daily support that keeps a family going. For that, we have a Kiki and those unofficial aunts and uncles, people we have been lucky enough to collect throughout the years, people who are not compelled to be in our lives by an accident of birth but choose to be there. They are our chosen family. Many of those people are LGBT, but they aren't our chosen family because they are LGBT or in spite of it; they are our chosen family because they are good people, the kind of men and women who set good examples for our kids, the kind of people we want them to grow up to be.
And now that our oldest son identifies as gay, having so many positive representations of gay adults is not only a blessing but a necessity. He has only to look around at the people in his life to know that being gay is not limited to one facet or stereotype. My son knows from his environment that being gay means that he can grow up to be anything, anyone, he wants. He is not restricted by what society tells him a gay man should be. He knows who gay men are: people he loves, cherishes and depends on. Could it get any better than that?
When right-wing pundits talk about family values, they use it as a weapon. There are the families that are not "correct" and don't fit into their definitions of what a family should be. A family should be about love. A family should be about support. A family should be about turning to the people you trust in times of need and knowing that they will catch you. Our chosen family is all of those things, and that's as real as it gets.
So although our family might be unconventional, we're happy and unwilling to change... and we shouldn't need to.
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