This is Not Your Average Family

continued from Lucky…

I’m interested in the ways we can subvert the status quo when it isn’t working, which is almost always for most people.  I’m also interested in what it means to be a family.   These two concerns lead me down the path to friendship.  They lead me towards a questioning of the foundation we take as a given for both creating a family and finding happiness.  Person meets person, person commits to person, new couple buys a house, new couple has babies.  Notice that I didn’t say man meets woman.  Our burgeoning understanding of sexuality, gender, and sex allows us to insert an infinite number of combinations into the aforesaid equation, without challenging its basic premise.  The basic premise is as follows: Happiness and stability are the result of a union between two people.  This union is often predicated on the notion of romantic love and sexual attraction.

The image above is of the poet Lucy Grealy (see my previous post for more details).  She is pictured with three mastiffs, a cat, and a hunky stranger.  Lucy Grealy did not get married, nor did she have children, though she was a devout follower of the cult of marriage.  Although she was subjected to 38 excruciating surgeries in an attempt to reconstruct her jaw, it is possible to surmise from her book Autobiography of a Face as well as Anne Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty, that more than anatomical ‘normalcy’, Lucy pined to be loved, to be saved, by a man.  And yet, despite it all, she was deeply loved by so many.  Her relationship with Anne Patchett so resembled what we have come to think of as a marriage, that it caused some to speculate that the two must be having sex.  

This intertwining of sex and love and marriage and the couple and family is so deeply rooted in our notions of happiness that at times if feels beyond reproach.  Two’s company, three’s a crowd.  Feeling like the third wheel.  Third Wheelationship.  These expressions all suggest the superfluity of additional people who are not part of a so-called romantic couple.  The weird thing is, not many vehicles even operate with two wheels apart from a motorcycle and a hoverboard. In most cases, like with a wheelbarrow or a jogging stroller, the third wheel actually stabilizes the craft and makes movement possible.  And then four wheels is even more stable than three.  When it comes to conveyance, more is better than two.

The point is not that three is the magic number or that two people is bad.  Nor is the point that couples who claim sexual attraction as their defining feature are doomed.  The point is to consider options.  The point is to imagine all the possibilites that might be offered by alternative constellations of people.

I live in a house with my husband, my sister, my brother, and a dear roommate/friend.  My husband and I have our room divided into two bedrooms; the second bedroom is used for friends in need who will come intermittently and stay sometimes as long as a year.  A multitude of people have keys to our door, including my mom, several old roommates, and some childhood friends.  For now I imagine that my marriage is an evolving and shifting union between all these people, as well as the five cats and three dogs.  To simply say that my marriage to my husband is the primary relationship in my life would be inaccurate.  There is a bond there that is different, for sure, but not bigger or better or more important.  People who have grown up in collectivistic cultures have an intuitive understanding of what I’m talking about, but for North Americans this is a radical arrangement.   

It works for me, at this point in time, on so many levels.  And I think really, it is a more realistic representation of what it takes to have your needs met.  Assuming that one person can meet all your needs and believing that intense sexual attraction marks this person, like an X on a treasure map, seems an ill-advised gamble destined for disappointment.  

The other night my husband and I were lying in bed, both staring at the ceiling, lost in our respective reveries.  I roll over onto my side, prop myself up on my elbow: “What are you thinking about?”  I ask.  “Whether or not dog saliva has anti-aging properties for humans”, he says thoughtfully.  “You?”  “Cancer, death”, I reply.  My husband and I have very little in common.  He walks into a room and is curious about how a bolt in the ceiling was made to fit a particular configuration of wood.  Me, I want to know what someone’s early childhood was like.  We share some values, but not all.  We don’t go to each other’s events or spend time with each other’s friends.  Neither of us can remember the date of our wedding anniversary, and yet our relationship has lasted almost 18 years. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is ideal or that we are perfect.  We have broken up, separated, been to counselling, had fights that the neighbours can hear down the block, called each other names, felt alienated and alone as many times as not.  But there are lots of cogs in this machine, and that takes the pressure off any one person to fix or sustain it all.  Like I said, this is not about nailing down the correct or best definition of a family, it is about a consideration of possibilities, different ways or loving and being loved.