What Does “Family” Mean?

Happy FamilyOur twelve year old grand-daughter (TR) has just been with us for a week long visit.  After she left, I got to musing about what “family” means to me.  So, in the absence of any other topic for this week’s post, I plan to indulge myself by sharing my reflections.  No doubt with the spike in blended families, some of this will be all too familiar to readers.

I was raised in a western suburb of Sydney, with my nine years older brother and my mother.  She wasn’t much into mothering, first of all because she worked full-time to support us, and then, from when I turned seven, she was ill and frequently hospitalised.  Furthermore, she didn’t have much mothering experience herself.  She was only three when my grandmother placed her into an orphanage for five years.  So it is not as if she had a role-model to give her a practice run through.

That does not mean I was short of mothers.  First of all, there was Mrs K.  She was my ‘every day’ mum.  She looked after me constantly during the day from when I was a few weeks old until I started school, and was quite involved from then on.  Then there was Aunty M, my mother’s sister.  I went to her every school holidays, and I was “willed” to her in case of my mother’s death.  Then there was Aunty N, my mother’s sister-in-law (wife of her brother).  I lived with her at one stage, long enough to attend the local school; and I often spent weekends with her.  Mrs S, the neighbour across the road, also took me to live with her for a while, when mum had a long bout in hospital.  Mrs v.d. A was the mother of my best friend in infants school, and Mrs H was the mother of my best friend in primary school.  Both of them were great support as step-in mothers, but sadly each of them moved interstate (at different times) when their husbands were promoted.

I left home shortly after my sixteenth birthday, which kind of flagged to everybody that I thought I could do it for myself from then on.  I did return home for a while, but it was because my mother had been discharged from hospital and needed support, rather than the other way around.  That didn’t last long (a euphemism for: “it did not go well”).

By the time I was eighteen, I was living in a boarding house in Sydney.  It was there that I made a lifelong friend ‘J’, from England.  When her mother came for a visit, she told me, “Oh, if you ever come to England, you must stop with me for a while”.  So I did.  So frequently, and for such long stints, that she enquired about adopting me.  The solicitor told her that since I had already turned twenty-one, I was no longer “adoptable”.  That was a pity, because I figured I hadn’t yet done with a need for mothering.  In fact, I felt almost as if I had been an orphan, and coming into her large and energetic family was a steep learning curve.  Anyway, it didn’t matter what the authorities thought, we just continued on as if we were mother and daughter anyway.  Mrs M (J’s mother) already had six children.  Even though she died in 2005, those children and I have carried on as if I am part of the family.  It was these English siblings that I referred to in my Kent posts.

When I was twenty-five, I went to Italy to find my father.  I found him alright – but he was living in Sydney.  As well, my mother was back in hospital.  On top of which, the policies of the Thatcher government were making it difficult for me to string out my visa any longer.  So, after four years of living in Europe, it was time to head back to Australia.

When I met my father, it turned out to be a package deal.  I gained two sisters, a brother, and a step-mother.  My father has been dead about twenty years now, but the family ties are still strong.  My step-mum has always been very accepting of me.  It could have gone differently, but it didn’t – which is a great credit to her.  People sometimes forget she is my “step” mum – which caused some confusion when my “mum” mum died last December.

So why am I telling you all this?  I am not sure really.  It is just that whenever TR comes to visit, I wonder if she sees the world through similar eyes as I did at her age.  Her life is just as topsy-turvy as was mine.

You have to pay close attention to this next bit.  It gets very confusing.

When I met Bill, he was separated from his wife.  She had taken their two boys and gone to live with another man whom she later married.  Then Bill and I married.  So the two boys, ‘C’ and ‘G’ then had four sets of parents.  Except that ‘G’ was adopted.  In 1991, the secrecy laws around adoption in NSW were lifted, and ‘G’ made contact with both his original mother and father.  Each of them were also married to another partner.  So now ‘G’ had eight sets of parents.

Then ‘G’ fathered ‘TR’, the twelve year old that has just been to stay with us.  The traditional mother-father-daughter family set up did not last long.  TR now lives with her mother and younger (half) brother.

Family dynamics being what they are, there are some grandparents that her mother tolerates more than others.  Bill and I, and another set of grandparents, have had regular and constant contact with TR right from the start.  Over the  years though, her mum has been cautious about who else has access, but of late – there is some hope for more contact.  Theoretically, there are four sets of grandparents – just from TR’s paternal heritage – that are willing to have a role in her upbringing.  Then there are aunts, uncles, cousins.  And if we start bringing in my Italian links, which TR has met very occasionally, then the family chart will explode even further.  TR is curious about all these people, even though she gets it confused.  She is convinced she has Italian blood, for example.

Well, the way I figured it out for myself was that you can never have enough people in your life who love and care for you.  The kind of people who, when the going gets tough, are prepared to stand in your corner.  They can be your blood relatives, or your adopted relatives, or your step relatives, or relatives of relatives, or just plain people you meet and bond with.

The concept of “family” is very flexible in my book.  They just need to be people who care enough to be in your life and stay in it in person, or to pass the connection along when it is time for them to leave.  And hopefully when that time comes, they stay forever in your loving memory.

Sunday 29th September 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Wollongong

19 thoughts on “What Does “Family” Mean?

  1. Pingback: Sharing a Message of Hope and Inspiration for 2016 | The Reluctant Retiree

  2. Oh my gosh Gwen that is an amazing story! (see why u r meant to write) – u have so much to write about!! How did u get on with your dad after u re united/found him?

    Ps I also thought u had a very relaxed and comfortable relationship with TR u could tell she loves u and Bill!!!


  3. Hi my friend. Loved this post from you and if you really put your thinking cap on it wasnt that hard to understand although thats maybe because I have met most of the families. You are very lucky to have so much family. I find it very difficult sometimes to cope without someone to fall back on. This is the legacy of being an only child. Anyway that is my lot in life and hopefully I will survive. Oh well such is life. Looking forward to seeing you this week. Rhonda


  4. Hello GG, What a lovely post and very generous of you to share your broad family experience. Here in the UK we are just about to suffer another onslaught from the current right wing coalition government about ‘family values’ as they prepare to preference marriage through the tax system. There is still a blinkered, rose-tinted view of marriage and the nuclear family in some quarters which never ceases to surprise me. Personally, I think the myth of the nuclear family was a construction of the mid-20th century advertising world. Anybody who has read a bit of history knows that family and kinship are wide, baggy concepts. On a personal level I once had somebody tell me we weren’t a proper family because it was only me and my daughter – why are people so judgemental? Great to hear of your family experience. Agnes


    • Hi Agnes. I have been mulling over your feedback (and as always, thanks for the effort!) Another bright, educated, involved, committed mum also told me recently she is the subject of prejudice for being a single parent. It must be so frustrating to receive these negative comments, particularly if the person commenting has no idea how you came to be a single mum, and how you are raising your daughter, or what support system you have in the background. Of course, we would all love to be part of a “two parent with siblings, love, stability and encouragement family”, but – as you say – it is not everyone’s experience, and has never been. In the end, I came to the conclusion that there are “constructive” and “destructive” families, and they occur right throughout the social strata. Being married doesn’t guarantee the former, but perhaps your government is hoping it will diminish the possibility of single parents being overwhelmed with the task at hand? GG


      • Hi GG, I think you are right about constructive and destructive families, and if we all started putting the children first and considered the raising of the next generation as important to everyone then maybe people would cease to be so judgmental. Let’s hope for kinder times. Agnes


  5. Loved reading this blog about the diversity of family and people who have impacted your life. You summed it up well when you said ……. “Well, the way I figured it out for myself was that you can never have enough people in your life who love and care for you.”


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