Families of Choice-

Originally printed by the Chicago Phoenix- February 7, 2013


I feel bad. I told a fib to my dad.  See every week, my dad (I’ll call “G”) edits my articles. I email him my rough drafts and he, lovingly, sends me his edits.  “G” is an accomplished author, professor and one hell of a father.  He and my mother (I’ll call “M”) are, by far, my biggest supporters.  This week, however, I told him I probably was not going to have an article so I didn’t need his help.

Why did I do this? I didn’t want him to read this week’s article before it came out.  I wanted it to be a surprise for both my parents. Technically, this article is about Families of Origin VS. Families by Choice.  Personally, this is an article of gratitude for two people who, literally, saved my life. “G” and “M” are not my Family of Origin, but rather my Family by Choice. I am their adopted son.   

Picture this: One three year old boy (me) whose mother had just died left living with his alcoholic father. Enter two people (“G” and “M”) who took in this boy, treated him like he was their own son, made sure he knew he was loved, made sure he was safe and did their absolute best to make sure he grew up to be a successful, productive adult.  The result: a Family by Choice.

When I was 15, “G” and “M” formally asked my father if they could adopt me. For a long time he had been unable to care for me due to the progression of his disease.  They also asked my permission.  I remember having conflicted thoughts. What about “blood being thicker than water?” I loved “G” and “M” but I also loved my father. The guilt I felt about abandoning my father and my Family of Origin was overwhelming; yet I needed the love and safety my Family by Choice provided.

When I was making my decision, my aunt of origin questioned how I could even think of allowing “G” and “M” adopt me.  She said it was not right.  She said Family of Origin always trumps Family by Choice.  I thought about it. Was this true?  The one truth I did know was my blood relatives had not been there when my father’s alcoholism threatened my life.  My aunt actually did the opposite and distanced herself from my father and me.  I don’t blame her.  It must have been tough to witness.  The fact remains that when push came to shove my Family of Origin did not or could not step up to help me.

However “G” and “M” did. Even before they adopted me, they set up a room in their house, stressing how important it was for me to have my own, safe place to go. They even paid for my doctor bills when my father couldn’t rise to the occasion to get insurance. I remember the nights they stayed up with me, allowing me to cry because as a kid I couldn’t understand why my dad was the way he was.

When “G” and “M” finally adopted me, they stressed that though we weren’t a Family of Origin, we were a Family by Choice. We had chosen each other. To them, that was the same or even a greater commitment than if I had been born to them.  They also assured me that it was okay to love both families.

Families of Origin can be a very powerful support system.  We are naturally tied to our blood family, especially parents. We are programmed to want our parents’ love.  When we receive it, it lifts us up like nothing else. In strong Families of Origin, they often become Families by Choice.  These people would choose each other whether they were related or not.  But when our Families of Origin aren’t capable of extending the love we need, we can internalize that experience to mean we aren’t deserving of love.   

Love is love no matter where it comes from. Every person deserves to be loved. Families by Choice are valid families. Too often I hear clients conflicted about a misguided loyalty or obligation to their Families of Origin.  It’s okay to go towards the love.  Whether in the context of relationships with lovers, friends or children we adopt, it is okay to dedicate our love and lives to our Families by Choice.  

At one time it was the guilt and sadness of letting go of my Family of Origin that overwhelmed me. Today it is the overflowing gratitude for my Family by Choice that lifts me up. 

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”  - Jane Howard