Feb 3rd, 2012 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Senior Moments Blog

Just Who is Family Anyway??

Some senior friends recently engaged in a lively discussion about who family members ‘really’ are in this age of multiple divorces, family dis-unity and international living with boundaries being more and more blurred.  At the end of the day, there was no agreement about what constitutes a family, who is ‘really’ a family member and who are interlopers. There was agreement about the level of concern this issue raises for many seniors; they agreed step-family relationships is one of their top 10 concerns.

For purposes of illustration, let me tell you about my family.  Jerry and I have been married 37 years plus.  Were we members of each others biological families before we were married?  And then Jerry’s son from his first marriage lived with us following our marriage, so technically he is my step-son.  Is a step-child a member of the step-parent’s biological family? Jerry and I raised him.  Does that make any difference?  My daughter, relinquished at birth to adoptive parents, is technically Jerry’s step-daughter.  Is she a member of his biological family?  We didn’t reunite until she was 35 years old.  I signed a paper that gave up all ‘rights’ to her.  Is she still my daughter?

And then it gets really complicated when we move out to extended family members.  A nephew and his wife have adopted two African children, one from Nairobi and the other African-American from Utah.  Are they members of our family?  Can people from different races be members of each others families? Another nephew married a woman with two children, then they divorced.  Are those two children (now adults) members of our extended family?  Should they be invited to family events?

Our daughter is in her second marriage, with two step-daughters from her husband’s first marriage entering the picture.  Are they our granddaughters?  Should they be included with birthday and Christmas gifts?  Or do we limit our gifts to our biological children and grandchildren?

After my mother died, my father remarried a woman who had two adult children and a host of grandchildren and greats.  Are they members of our extended family? What role, if any, do they play in our family?

Some Suggestions for Handling the Definition of Family

This discussion could, obviously, go on for a long time.  The picture seems to be very clear: There are a lot of questions that don’t seem to have any answers.

What are the guidelines for determining who is family and who is not when it comes to the myriad of non-biological family members in a family picture? These are our suggestions:

  • The moral and right thing to do is to treat step-children no differently from biological children.  Period, end of discussion.
  • Well, almost… Beyond what is morally right are issues of reality.  We think parents and grandparents need to be very careful about including non-biological children in their lives, as an integral part of the family constellation.  Those children have feelings, and if left out, they will feel unloved.  They will grow up.  They will not forget how they were treated as children.  They will be adults much longer than they were children.  If you want a connected family in your senior years, treat your step-offspring just as you treat the biological ones.
  • If a family member or group chooses to exclude themselves from your family events, respect their choice.  Do not try to coerce people to become members of your family if they don’t want the relationship.  Respect their choices even if they are biologically related, by the way.
  • If family members make choices to include non-biological people (children) in their family constellation, honor those choices with love and respect. Doesn’t mean you give them the family farm; but treat them just as you treat their biological counterparts.  It does mean that you make no judgements, that you love unconditionally.

We are all better human beings when we practice compassion.  When in doubt, be compassionate.  And when you have all the answers, be compassionate.

Contributed by Dr Sharon Shaw Elrod

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  1. Dear “sis” – I consider you my SISTER! Taking care of my mom and taking care of a family don´t give me enough time to do what I exactly would like to be doing…. like reading your articles and just today I sat down to read some of them. Loved many of them. I must tell you that some of them I don´t understand very well when the main subject is about “public”health care in your country, but never mind- the others, when you write about love, family, compassion I understand and they are soooo GREAT!
    Who is family? is a very nice one, and I felt myself included! Yes, you have written in a very easy way and every one must understand that- “if you give love you´ll probably be loved”. It may not always work out that way, but it´s better to treat everyone in the family with unconditional love.
    Love you, Sílvia.

  2. Thanks for the kind and loving message, dear little sister. I love you back–a ton!!

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