We are taught, right from the day we have some understanding of our surroundings, that family is your parents and your siblings. Then you have an extended family which is your aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. For many years I believed this. Family to me was always father, mother, children. It was an etched-in-stone kind of definition.
The world as we know it as moved away from this definition. There are many women who choose to be single mothers, there are many men who choose to be single fathers. Then there is the gay community, where family is either father, father and children or mother, mother and children. Families now come in all shapes and sizes. Not every family fits into the age-old definition of father, mother and children.
I grew up in a middle class nuclear family. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, grandparents were people we interacted with during the summer vacation. My core was my father, mother, brother and paternal uncle who lived with us. This was my space in the universe. In this space, I was allowed to feel, I was allowed to talk, I was allowed to be me. If I said something out of disrespect, I was corrected. If I said something out of anger, I was given the space to calm down. If I did something wrong, I was told why it was wrong and I was given the opportunity to apologize. My family had a lot of friends and we called them family friends. These were people who lent a hand financially when my parents were struggling to pay my school fees or were short handed at the end of the month. They were there with us emotionally, by encouraging us to push a little higher and have some success in the print world. We participated whole heartedly in each others family events, marriages, death, birth, etc. I have seen more of my parents friends come to our house, have a meal of simple chapathi and curry or whatever was there, than my aunts and uncles.
My concept of family developed through these people. They were family to me, not just family friends, because they were there for us. They didn’t tell my parents that they were trying to do something impossible by trying to set up a print shop. They didn’t judge my parents and say why are you sending your children to the best and most expensive school when you know you cannot afford it. They didn’t comment on the clothes we wore, or the humble living quarters. They sat cross legged on the floor and ate what my mother served. Without asking they brought money and handed it over to my parents. I owe these people a lot and remember them fondly. Many of them have passed, but they were placed in our lives for a reason.
I am a movie buff. A few movies have left a lasting impact on me. One such movie is English Vinglish. After learning English, at the end of the movie, the protagonist defines what a family is, and those words have stuck with me. She says, ‘a family is not judgmental’. That’s precisely how I was raised. My family and everyone around my family, our support systems, never judged us. So that is my definition of a family. A group of people who do not judge you and with whom you can be you.
As I go through my divorce, I have been re-drafting my age-old family definition of father, mother, children. Now my family is mother and children. And that is okay, because for single moms, mom and children is family. My son recently asked me what is family. I told him from my experience this is what I have learnt – a group of people who don’t judge you and let you be you. He said, you took the words out of my mouth. I am glad, rather proud, that my child is not stuck to age old family definitions. That he understands, family is not judgmental.