There’s ‘nothing like family’ they say. Family is there when everyone else is gone. Blood is thicker than water. When things are tough, family are always there. That’s what they say.
‘Rubbish’ is what I say. But you can’t easily say it without shocking or offending people. The goodness of ‘family’ is sacrosanct. It’s mythology that can’t be challenged. And maybe your family is different. Maybe it is the exception. But as I look at the families I know, the families of friends, I don’t see happy families at all, despite what they say. In almost every family, I see people who don’t get on, people who are completely different from each other, people who have developed different interests and different values, despite coming from the same family background and upbringing.
To take just a few examples from some of my friends. (Not my family of course. It’s perfect!) One family has a father who is a philander, who had been supporting two families for years without the knowledge of either. One family has an alcoholic mother. One has a son addicted to drugs, a liar, a law breaker, permanently attached to and supported by the social welfare system. One has an adult daughter with chronic depression who requires family support whenever the parents seem just about to get their heads above water and be able to live their own lives. Another has sons and daughters who won’t talk to each other. Many families have disputes over who gets what from the estate when parents die. Some take the assets themselves even before the parents die.
Other families have separated single parents as the couple have split for many and varied reasons, often with bitterness and ongoing bad feeling. Indeed single parent families are now the most common family unit in Australia. As singles now outnumber families as well, the stereotypically ideal family unit of two adults and children is no longer representative of reality.
You can’t choose family. You are stuck with them, whatever they are like. Yet, despite these skeletons in our cupboards, we stick with this mythology that ‘families are wonderful’ and that they are the ultimate underlying civilising bedrock of the social welfare of our society.
But you can – and do – choose your friends. If you want to discuss something, who do you discuss it with? Friends. If you have a problem, who helps you solve it? Friends. If you want information about something, who do you go to to get it? Friends. If you want comfort, consolation, praise, support, company, adventure, who do you seek it from? Friends.
And, unlike your family, you can change your friends. You had childhood friends when you were a child, school and uni friends when you were growing up and exploring the world and yourselves, community friends who shared your children’s lives, friends from where you work. You have friends to travel with, friends to share community with, friends to share relationship problems with, friends to help.
If you fall out with family, theres not much you can do about it, but hope that time might heal the rift. If you fall out with friends, it is painful, but you can part ways. Your lives can move on. We are all on different buses, different journeys. We have different values, different expectations, different wants and desires. We are in different life situations and environments.
You move to a different suburb or city to live or work. You lose many of the community friends you had, because the friendship was actually based on the commonality of the community you lived in. It’s sad, but it is almost inevitable. At the same time, you gain some new friends from the new community you have moved to, the new organisation you have joined. And what a joy it is to discover new people, with similar interests and values as you, people you had no idea existed. Some of my best friends have been made when we lived overseas. And, 20 years later, we are still great friends with some of those people, but many have naturally dropped off our list – and us off theirs – as the effort required to remain in touch is too much.
But you can’t get rid of any family members whose values and interests are different from yours. You are stuck with them. Change is virtually impossible. Who can ditch a father, mother, brother, sister, regardless of what they do? You can ignore them, pretend they aren’t there. But at family weddings, or funerals or estate settling, they come back, to everyone’s embarrassment.
It’s no wonder Christmas is the most fraught time of the year for relationships as that is the traditional time for us to pretend that we are all part of one big happy family that family is wonderful, valuable, important. But the reality is that we don’t like some members, that others don’t like each other and all we really have in common – collectively – is that we share bloodlines. (And let’s not even talk about the in-law family issue, where everyone else is linked by blood, but we are the outsiders. We love our partner, but certainly not their family, and sometimes the less we see of their family, the better!)
So next time you hear someone making that Big Statement about how great their family or the ‘family’ is, recognise it for what it is – a myth. Put your time into your friends. You are stuck with your family. But most of the enjoyment of your life will come from time spent with your friends much more than time with your family.