The meaning of family in an unpredictable, untidy world

My friend Elli has never given birth, never adopted, never taken primary responsibility for an infant, a toddler or an adolescent.

But on the far side of 65, she finds herself playing the role of mother.

At the beginning of each school year, she's likely to be helping one of her college-age boys move into his freshman dorm. At the end, she's at a commencement, beaming as another of her boys finishes his four years and receives his diploma.

The boys are from Zimbabwe, where Elli has spent extensive time over the past decade and where she met many poor, bright teenagers determined to study in America.

She not only guided them through the application and financial aid process, but also remained one of the central figures in their lives. And they became essential to her. They're always calling and e-mailing. She's always calling and e-mailing back.

The writer says only sometimes is a family a mum and a dad living together with their biological children produced without in-vitro fertilisation.
The writer says only sometimes is a family a mum and a dad living together with their biological children produced without in-vitro fertilisation. BT FILE PHOTO

They consult her about the summer internships in their sights; they confide in her about new romances. And on holidays, they converge at her house to be fed and fussed over.

By any definition of the word that matters, she and her kids are a family. And they kept coming to mind as I read about a gathering of more than 250 Roman Catholic leaders in Rome over the past three weeks for what's been called the Synod of Bishops on the Family.

The bishops have been examining such issues as whether the church should relax its censure of divorce and remarriage, whether it should be more welcoming to unmarried couples, whether it should open its arms to the children of same-sex parents. A report was released over the weekend.

In The New York Times, my colleagues Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo have described the synod as "the most momentous, and contentious, meeting of bishops in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council, which brought the church into the modern era".

The Church has made minimal progress since. If it's still stuck on divorce, it's still stuck in the past.

And if its discussion of virtue and rectitude is rooted in the architecture of a family and the labels its members wear - married, unmarried, straight, gay - it's focused on the wrong things and missing the boat. It's seeing family in terms that are much too narrow and having a conversation that's much too small.

Are most Catholics even paying attention?

We in the media are drawn to these doctrinal wars and the hushed, cloaked deliberations inside the Vatican. People in the pews are less rapt. The warmth and respect they feel for the current Pope doesn't translate into any obeisance to Church edict.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Centre this year, only one in three American Catholics believes that it's sinful to live with a romantic partner outside of marriage. Only one in five believes that it's sinful to get a divorce. While 44 per cent of the respondents in that poll frowned on sexual relations between two men or two women, 39 per cent didn't. And while respondents clearly viewed a family headed by a father and a mother who are married to each other as the ideal, most of them did not view it as the only acceptable situation.

More than 80 per cent were OK with divorced parents, single parents or unmarried parents living together. More than 65 per cent were OK with gay or lesbian parents. That openness to a

variety of arrangements is sometimes described - by religious leaders, by social conservatives - as a drift away from morality, a sad surrender to an anything-goes ethos.

But the truth is more complicated and less sombre than that.

The prevalence of divorce, unmarried cohabitation and single parenting in part reflects laudable advances in the way we regard women. Most of us no longer encourage them to be economically dependent on men; most of us no longer expect them to suffer in subservience when husbands are emotionally or physically abusive. That's a change we should build on.

It's not turpitude. It's enlightenment.

Most of us understand, in a way we once didn't, that there are men who will never know full romantic and sexual love with a woman, and there are women who will never experience that with a man.

Was society better off when we denied that and trapped gay and lesbian people in heterosexual marriages that brought joy to neither spouse and were constructed on a lie? Did society benefit from marginalising gay and lesbian people?

Those are rhetorical questions. Or at least they should be.

My own parents remained married until my mother's death at 61, and my three siblings and I are active, integral, cherished parts of one another's lives.

Whenever I write about that, a few readers and a few friends will invariably compliment me on our closeness, rightly recognising that it requires time, generosity, flexibility, forgiveness. But I'm more impressed by families who are bound by choice than blood.

For all that I've learnt about family around my own Thanksgiving table, I've learnt as much by watching people without dependable parents, caring siblings or nurturing spouses forge clans of a different kind. I saw this happen time and again in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Aids ravaged gay America and many sufferers found themselves abandoned by relatives, whose religions prodded them towards judgment instead of compassion. Friends filled that gap, rushing in as saviours, stepping up as providers, signing on as protectors. Where families were absent, families were born.

And I see this throughout the unpredictable, untidy world beyond the confines of the synod and the concerns of Catholic bishops, who often seem more interested in dictating the parameters of sex than in celebrating the boundlessness of love.

Only sometimes is a family a mum and a dad under the same roof as biological children produced without the assistance of in-vitro fertilisation (another Catholic no-no).

Always a family is a troop that marches across the messy, majestic landscape of life with greater strength than any lone individual can muster.

Only sometimes does a family share chromosomes.

Always it shares commitments.

Elli has made and maintained one to her boys, whose aspirations and accomplishments she routinely relays to me, in a voice brimming with a very familiar, poignant kind of pride.

I asked her once how strangers react to her involvement with them. "They like to see me as Mother Teresa," she said.

And she laughed, because she's no nun and no saint.

But to my mind, she's a mother.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'The meaning of family in an unpredictable, untidy world'. Print Edition | Subscribe