Kinship: Our Language for Family is Too Limited


My cousin Cody is one of my very best friends. Recently, he told a work colleague that he and I end up texting or calling each other almost every day, and this person was authentically surprised that two cousins would be so close.

Then last week, in a conversation with someone, I accidentally called Cody my brother. I admit it kind of surprised me. It’s not like I mixed him up with another brother. I’m an only child and have never had siblings. Perhaps unconsciously within me, there was a desire to use a word that would more adequately signal the reality of how close we are. ‘Cousin’ is factual, but in that moment, it wouldn’t have signaled that. Cody very much feels like the brother I never had.

But in addition to these particular moments, Cody and I have had a lot of conversations lately about the ways that family language can be limiting. Specifically, in addition to our families of birth, how do we come to talk about people who have become family to us? What language do we use to adequately express those relationships? ‘Friend’ may be factual, but so often, it falls short completely. How do we talk about these beloved people in ways that aren’t confusing or limiting, while adequately signalling how these relationships function in our lives?

As an example, how do we talk about the myriad of ways we build our families? Cody and I were recently talking about parenting and family formation, and he said to me, “So there’s birth, there’s adoption, and there’s. . . what you do. What do you call that, Renee?”

“EXACTLY!” is all I could exclaim. What is it that I do. . .? Or more accurately, what is it that I have experienced and continue to co-create alongside others? What do I call that? For instance, over the last decade, I have come into relationship with about twenty young adults with whom I have made lifetime commitments. We have become family to one another. These relationships haven’t displaced our families of birth, but they have richly added to them. How do we talk about this when the language of connection often falls short? How do we all talk about the variety of pathways toward family formation, when our culture tends to create some sort of hierarchy of who gets to be ‘real family,’ and who doesn’t?

The limitation of language can lead to real challenges too. I can tell you this first-hand: Alongside my family of birth, for whom I give thanks, I have additionally had parents who aren’t literally my parents, siblings who aren’t literally my siblings, and children who aren’t literally my children. And when these relationships have had needs — specifically, when I have needed to signal to the broader community that these relationships have needs, or that I have needs in connection to theirs — the limitation of language has become a serious challenge. For instance, what happens when these kinds of loved ones go through a crisis? Or a serious illness? What happens when one of these loved ones dies?

Often, an unconscious cultural hierarchy comes into play. People don’t always naturally respond in ways that are adequate to the connection. Somehow, words like “Mom,” “Dad,” “Brother,” “Sister,” “Son,” and “Daughter” serve to mark significance publicly, and people know what to do with these. But when language falls short for other kinds of familial relationships, people downplay their significance, usually unintentionally.

I have experienced this, including 9 years ago, when I lost a parent-who-wasn’t-literally-my-parent to cancer. There was a lot of work involved in helping people to understand my grief. Sometimes, I just wanted to be able to voice a familial marker. That’s all it would have taken to help people understand.

So all of this is to say. . . I think we need deeper and richer language for family. For Kinship. It’s less about specific terms and more about expanding our language to make space for what’s real in our lives. I long for a language rich enough to adequately describe my Family-of-Choice — a language that is particular enough and a language that is expansive and inclusive enough.

I don’t know how to do this exactly, but I find myself wanting to do some serious writing about Kinship in these ways. I’m certainly not alone in these experiences. And if lots of us have these experiences, why not have a better language to match them?

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series this week. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

Kinship: Open Wide the Circle
Kinship: The Myriad of Entry Points
Kinship: “We share one soul”

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