Like many people, my family is complex. I have two uncles who have finally re-connected after at least 20 years of not talking to each other. At the same time, one of those uncles and another are now no longer talking to each other even though they have been business partners for over 20 years. Half of my family doesn’t talk to the other half, and one Grandma only speaks with me, though she mostly only asks me about my siblings. The relationships are challenging, often frustrating, but like virtually all humans, we all still find emotional support in the form of family.
Regardless as to whether family members are living or deceased, whether we know our ancestors or have no knowledge of our familial roots, and whether we have close relationships with family or whether our ties have faded, we all seem to be primed to find emotional support in family and in the idea of family. I really only recently learned about the heritage of my family from my dad’s side, and while I have lived most of my life without knowing any of that heritage, I am now able to find pride in the roots of that side of my family. I also look back at my dad’s dad, a troubled man who made some bold choices to get our family to the United States, and I find emotional support in his story, even if the man was not ultimately the best role model one could have. The point is that despite the contradictions in people and in families, despite the distance in time and space that arise between family members, we hold on to our families as something special, and find support in them, even if they are not around to actually support us.
Elliot Liebow writes about this phenomenon in the case of homeless women in Washington DC in the early 90’s in his book Tell Them Who I Am. Many of the women who he met were divorced, some had kids, and many had lost almost all connections with family. Nevertheless, family, the stories they had about their families, and the ideas and memories of family gave the women emotional suppport. The women didn’t want to burden their families with their own homelessness, demonstrating a real respect for their family members who were doing better than they were. They were impressed by children whose lives were on better paths, and they even sometimes remembered former spouses in a positive light. For women who had few deep connections or meaningful relationships in their homeless lives, the past relationships and memories of deep connections still fueled them to keep moving and surviving each day.
Humans need connections and families are the first connections we form. Even though today the families we chose are sometimes closer to us than the families we are born into, our original and genetic families are still a strong force in our lives. We are predisposed to care about our families and find emotional support within them, even when they are not physically close by or emotionally near us.