Nothing has made me reflect on the meaning of family as much as loss. In the space of three years, I lost three of the people that I have loved the most: my grandmother, my mother and then my uncle, who was like a second father to me.
There was a moment in the daze that followed my mother’s death when I had an unexpected thought: I was glad that I didn’t have a family. I just could not tend to anyone else’s needs even in a minuscule way, given the desolate state that I was in.
The thought startled me. As an only child, I always dreaded that I would one day have to face the agony of losing a parent alone. Yet here I was feeling a sense of relief, however fleeting, at precisely that predicament.
When I thought about it more deeply, I understood that it was not family per se that I was relieved not to have. I felt fortunate to have my father, my mother’s sister, my extended family, my friends, my aunties and my mother’s close friends, who provided soothing, tender, feminine love. I was profoundly appreciative of this family.
What I didn’t want at this challenging point in my life was a nuclear family, that Western standard typically comprising of a couple and maybe one or two children. This realization spurred me to think about what the term “family” means to me.
First, let me be clear: I understand why a loving partner and children can be genuine sources of joy and comfort to many people. In fact, soon after my mother died, I fell in love, and that relationship brought me consolation.
But in modern society, we oscillate between contradictory ideas about family as a place of comfort and an institution of tradition and dogma, where repressive and outmoded views are upheld.
I’ve found that women have especially conflicting views about family, which is no surprise considering that the family institution often oppresses women, whether it is their sexual, reproductive, legal or economic rights. Marriage – often considered a pillar of the nuclear family – remains, by far, more advantageous for men, and study after study shows that women are increasingly staying single by choice.
Additionally, people who grew up in countries that were colonized by the West must grapple with the intersection between typical Western ideas of family and their traditional ones. Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I witnessed how the polygamous family and the Western nuclear family were entangled in ways that, at times, made them more vibrant, but also compromised women.
Furthermore, the Western traditional concept of family is grounded in heteronormativity – the belief that heterosexuality is the normal expression of sexuality. It is therefore a compromising space for many LGBTQ people and those who are no longer interested in performing traditional female and male roles.
As humans, we crave closeness to others, a sense of belonging, of a place to go to when life is challenging. But we are at a point in time when we urgently need to redefine and separate the notion of family from patriarchy and heteronormativity if it is to survive. Only then can we make informed decisions about what an ideal family really is.
This won’t be a matter of hiding away the past or repackaging traditional notions of family as empowering “choice feminism.”
Freed from the constraints of patriarchy and heteronormativity, family can be so much more than a structure of enforced bonding and bondage. Family can be a safe space absent of social hierarchies and prejudices. It can also take on various forms. To borrow a thought from Toni Morrison, “Two parents can’t do it (raise a child). I have women friends who … use each other as a kind of life-support system. You need a tribe. I don’t care what you call it, extended family, large family. That’s what one needs.”
Dealing with loss and grief was not the first time I’d felt relieved not to be in a nuclear family. Coming from a long tradition of feminists challenging the family concept, I’m much more interested in a notion of family that connotes deep friendship (which may or may not be of a romantic nature), the solidarity of sisterhood and the thoughtful formation of lasting connections with others.
I still don’t feel comfortable with the word “family”.
Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish and Swedish journalist, and the founder of the award-winning blog MsAfropolitan.
Next, read performer Vera Chok’s essay about finding a family that doesn’t need a label.
Photo: R. Cleveland Aaron