When we conjure up examples of a strong family, images of a father who provides, a mother who nurtures, and children who obey may emerge because we have been led to believe that this is the standard. However, in our ever-changing world, the limiting definitions of a “traditional” family no longer suffice to fully encapsulate the complexities of familial strength. In fact, it is arguable that we fall short of considering the cultural influences on family structures and dynamics that offer variants on the way family strength manifests in different communities today.
A few weeks ago, a fellow colleague and I greeted teachers as they entered to participate in a full day of professional development (PD) that we were about to present. Though we work in a large school district, we recognize familiar faces and build relationships with many teachers not only through our day to day support at assigned school sites but also during these district-wide training sessions. On this day, one of the teachers included Mrs. M, a first grade teacher with an endearing smile and a sweetness that seems to emanate from some women simply because they are aging. I always enjoy her charming wit whenever she is in attendance.
Mrs. M signed-in and immediately walked toward me with that infectious smile of hers. “Well, it is nice to see you. You are such a beautiful person, “she said as she gently placed her hand on my shoulder. She looked directly into my eyes and continued, “God made you so beautiful. Isn’t he so smart?” then playfully chuckled and took her seat. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt like a child and was overwhelmed with an urge to cry. I held back the tears, thanked her, and expressed how much I was looking forward to a day of collaboration and growth.
That moment with Mrs. M stayed with me the entire day. Clearly, it touched something in me that was deeply meaningful but identifying exactly what that was eluded me. At the end of the day, I wanted to simply thank her for coming to the PD and return the warmth she shared with me earlier. “I hope today was helpful to you,” I said as I now gently placed my hand on her shoulder. “Thank you so much for being here and…” The words that flowed next revealed all the depth of what Mrs. M provided for me that morning.
“…thank you for your kindness. You know, my father was an only child so I didn’t grow up with uncles and aunties surrounding me. This morning, when you affirmed me and validated me, I felt so much like…”
“I’m your auntie!” she suddenly blurted out with both of her hands placed over her heart.
“Yes. That’s what I felt. Thank you so much,” I whispered as I hugged her.
This exchange with Mrs. M helped me to realize that my tears were welling up from a sense of familiarity and an awakening of what family means in the wider context of human connection. You see, something about her mahogany brown skin, delicately graying hair, and tender voice seemed to be so familiar. If my father did have a sister, she may have looked and sounded like Mrs. M. But more importantly, she may have made me feel the way Mrs. M made me feel that day. She lifted and affirmed me in a way that only an elder, someone wiser and more knowing, could do. Since my biological family does not afford me this auntie, the community in which I exist does.
Researchers in the field of family sociology identify the development of socialization as a primary function of the family. Our family unit lays the groundwork for how we see ourselves and how we interact with our world. Where our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs are met within the family, we don’t experience the deep seeded yearning for fulfillment. However, where there may be voids, our communities of friends, church, work, or neighborhood provide sustenance. Keep in mind these voids can be simply from circumstance and not necessarily the result of a negative or traumatic event. As demonstrated above, my dad was an only child so Mrs. M became an auntie when I needed one. Another example would be that I don’t have brothers so I have friends who step up when my life calls for a brother. Perhaps you don’t have your own children so your nieces or nephews (Or for some teachers, their students.) provide occasions for you to nurture and encourage youth.
I believe when we begin to embrace the people in our lives as distant family members we become aware of just how connected we really are to each other. Reaching this awareness calls for us to be vulnerable enough to see and admit when we need support. It also asks us to be brave enough to extend kindness and a helping hand when someone needs it. Not one of us can get through this journey of life alone. Who has been fatherly or motherly to you? Who are your aunties and uncles? Who are your brothers and sisters? Do you know the nieces and nephews who look up to you?
By broadening my understanding of how family shapes me, I have become a member of a steadily growing human family. In this larger context, each family member looks and thinks differently, believes and behaves differently but there is no doubt that each one offers something to guide my growth. And in the spirit of family, I aim to humbly be a positive and contributing member to the collective.