How Do You Define Family?


It’s amazing how times have changed since I was a child. Not only technology, advances in medicine and science, and education, but in the definition or understanding of “family.” It’s a good change, I think, because as a society we have become more accepting, diverse in our thinking, and willing to understand that “family” can encompass so much more than we thought. We now get to think of “family” as a fluid and evolving definition, one that allows for acceptance of many familial situations, and one that tries to provide for the best interests of a child. Family no longer involves an automatic picture of a biological mom, dad and two charming children. It is shaped by environment, kinship ties, adoption, foster care, guardianships, loving relationships of all types, many generations, cultural norms, economic situations, community, global needs, partnerships, surrogate mothers, and even sperm donors. Family, as it is now, is how you define it.

Historically in this country, the construct of family was patriarchal, permanent, nuclear, heterosexual, monogamous, married, and biological, with Judeo-Christian values and clearly defined gender roles, and shaped exclusively by the customs, laws, social mores, and linguistic concepts of the family’s physical location. As the concept of family has evolved and as the needs of our society have changed, current legal opinions and professional notions of “family” have been forced to become much more fluid as they try to uphold what is in the best interests of a child, especially as far as safety is concerned, and carefully consider the vast opportunities there are for a child to become part of a forever family. Biases and assumptions about family life have had to take a back seat to reality. Biological and psychological perspectives of family have had to merge and agree to recognize that interconnectedness, the quality of the relationship and stability are crucial to helping a child attach and feel loved. Even clans, tribes and indigenous people value the idea of kinship and community if a biological parent is not available. Family reality is produced when we are open to negotiation, discussion, acceptance of ideas different from our own, and achieving balance and direction for a child. A glance at the latest descriptions of “family” in US Census records testifies to this dramatic change and fluidity of a household. Our understanding of family, we see, is finally celebrating dramatic variability and the beauty of diversity.

Working in international adoption, I am privileged to see many types of families, who are formed by personal desire and compassion for orphans, by abandoned children with hope for a better future, and by siblings and extended family members who have opened their hearts to accept another child into their familial group. The adoptive family is a very special family; one with big hearts, open arms, and faith in the adoption process. It is a family shaped by faith and feelings, the present and the future, trust and belief, expectations and preparation. It is a family of many religions, ethnicities, economies, sizes, traditions, cultures, educational levels, locales, and support systems. It is a family willing to dive unabashedly into the unknown, travel to distant lands, absorb differing and unique cultures, and dabble in languages normally unfamiliar to them. An adoptive family is not frightened by mounds of paperwork and is willing to navigate the laws of other countries as well as their own. They are steadfast in their goals and determined in their mission. Adoptive families are active, engaging, excited, hopeful, trusting, learning, willing, loving, and optimistic. They keep busy by fundraising, advocating, working, parenting, training, planning, meeting other adoptive families, and continually educating themselves. An adoptive family is anxious but also truly understands the need for patience. Adoptive families, more so than many other families, need reassurance, support and understanding of the risks and enormous leap of faith they are undertaking. They are resilient, accepting, committed, compassionate, and determined. Families who choose to adopt internationally have truly captured my heart and soul. They are so very special!

How does your family define “family”? My guess is that your family may be one with a mix of traditional and non-traditional characteristics. That is the beauty of family! In a world that is sometimes filled with chaos and concern, celebrating the metamorphosis of “family” is certainly joyful. For me, celebrating the wonder of international adoptive families is awe-inspiring!

Karlene Edgemon works as MLJ Adoptions’ Director of Social Services. Throughout her 25 year social services career, Karlene has been able to watch adoption transform the lives of children and she is always brainstorming new ways to support adoptive families before, during and after their adoption.