What Is Family? How I Learned to Redefine What Family Means to Me

Below is a picture of my dad, my little brother, and my mom. On this occassion, we were on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park during the summer after I graduated from high school. Without much thought, I would consider them the people whom I call family. That is what family is, right?

When you actually look up the definition of the word “family,” you will find a multitude of definitions, all of which have some similarities but also some differences. According to Merriam-Webster, one of the first few results that come up when you search the term is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.” Additionally, most likely due to changing times, they also explain that it is “any various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family.” The two definitions are pretty clear and expected.

If you look at the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey page, however, you will find that family is instead defined as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together; all such people (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.”

Whether you go with the Census Bureau, Merriam-Webster, or some other dictionary that comes up in Google, you’ll generally find the same definition. However, when I think about family, a different definition comes to my mind. While I consider my mom, dad, and brother as family—after all, as the above definitions have claimed, they are related to me and live with me in a single home—it goes beyond that.

I like to think that family is more than just blood and more than just living together.

For me, family consists of my mom, dad, brother, and all the people who continue to stand by me despite all the highs and lows we’ve gone through. They are the most important people in my life. If I could count on anyone, it would be them, whether they are related to me and live with me or not.

As such, family—to me—is anyone whom I choose to call family. That choice is important because it is the difference between people staying and people leaving. Yes, there are situations in which people may be compelled to maintain relationships, but when it comes to normal circumstances, people stay together because they choose to. When it comes to family, I may include my immediate family, extended family, or friends. I could even consider someone whom I just met in the last year as family, if the circumstances are right.

I came to this redefinition of family a few years ago after realizing that some people, including those whom I once considered family, are only there temporarily. I realized that sometimes we have to let people go, no matter how hard it may be to do so. The people who made me realize this were my aunts and uncles. They may have been part of my extended family, but they were still family. After all, I had known them all of my life and counted on them.

I was probably twelve when they showed me that family isn’t always who you think they are. My grandfather had recently passed away, and it was the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. My mom had also gotten laid off from her job as a senior engineer because the company she was working for was moving. When my mom reached out to her siblings for help and with an offer to become business partners, they not only turned their backs on her but also stabbed her in the back. Ultimately, they started a business and excluded my mom even though they told her they’d all work together. To make matters worse, one of my uncles decided to take my grandparents’ house for himself when my grandfather’s wish was for it to be sold and the money distributed to his nine children.

Despite all of this, my mom still tried her best to keep her siblings united for months before realizing that our once big, happy family was no longer what it used to be. We went from seeing many of them almost every other week to not seeing anyone—besides one or two of her brothers to whom she was closer—for almost eight years. I didn’t even get to see one cousin, whom I had considered my little brother, until he started attending the same college as me.

As a child who thought that family was the most important thing ever, this was devastating. After all, in the wise words of Lilo & Stitch, ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten, right?

For many years after that, I became pretty depressed. Sometimes, late at night, I would stay awake thinking about the past and how different everything was. Our house, once filled with people and laughter, became quiet and empty. People stopped visiting, conversations between everyone lessened, and Thanksgiving dinners became filled with the sounds of shuffling and forks clanking against dishes.

Every winter, while many families are with loved ones, celebrating the holidays and the new year, my immediate family would spend the days like we would any other. We may have had a nicer dinner but that was it. I know that there are many people who spend the holidays alone, but having experienced large family gatherings of 30 or more people all of my life before that point, those times were a stark contrast to what once was.

I longed for the past more than anything, sometimes crying myself to sleep because of it. I didn’t understand how people I called family could just walk away like that. I couldn’t accept it, and I didn’t know how to. As I grew older, I was always at odds with myself. On one hand, I wanted to not care about them any longer. They didn’t seem to care about us. On the other hand, I couldn’t not care, and I couldn’t let go of the hope that things would go back to how they once were. It took years before I learned to let them go. It took me seeing how it had destroyed my mother and witnessing the effects it had on my family to finally do so.

I was tired of feeling the way I was feeling. I didn’t want to feel depressed anymore, I didn’t want to be unable to trust people and let them into my life, and I didn’t want this to be how I defined family.

Family should be a good thing. They should be the people you love and trust. They should be the people that you can rely on to be there for you in good and bad times. Those aunts and uncles, while related by blood, weren’t that. They were holding me back from moving on with my life and being happy, despite not being present, and I didn’t want that anymore. I had had enough. It took a while, but I eventually moved on.

Many years passed before I saw them again. It was during my cousin Katie’s wedding in November 2016. Being related, we couldn’t not go, especially when she had nothing to do with our extended family falling apart. Seeing all of them once again was strange. I had known them all of my life, and yet, when I saw them during the dinner reception, it was like seeing strangers. They looked the same and sounded the same, and I could remember their behavioral quirks from years ago, but it was like I didn’t really know them. I did not know how to react. Hesitantly, with a look toward my mom, I greeted them and gave them hugs, albeit stiffly. All I can say is that it was awkward. 

It shouldn’t have mattered, but it still did to some extent. I think it’s because even when we do let go of people, there will always be some fraction of them left inside us and some fraction of us inside them. Our past is a part of who we arethat will never changeeven the people who come in and out of our lives and those whom we choose to let go. So, what’s family? That’s up to you. For me, family includes my mom, my dad, my brother, and my close friends. They are whom I choose to call family, regardless of any definition.

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As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

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What Is Family? How I Learned to Redefine What Family Means to Me

Below is a picture of my dad, my little brother, and my mom. On this occassion, we were on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park during the summer after I graduated from high school. Without much thought, I would consider them the people whom I call family. That is what family is, right?

When you actually look up the definition of the word “family,” you will find a multitude of definitions, all of which have some similarities but also some differences. According to Merriam-Webster, one of the first few results that come up when you search the term is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.” Additionally, most likely due to changing times, they also explain that it is “any various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family.” The two definitions are pretty clear and expected.

If you look at the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey page, however, you will find that family is instead defined as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together; all such people (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.”

Whether you go with the Census Bureau, Merriam-Webster, or some other dictionary that comes up in Google, you’ll generally find the same definition. However, when I think about family, a different definition comes to my mind. While I consider my mom, dad, and brother as family—after all, as the above definitions have claimed, they are related to me and live with me in a single home—it goes beyond that.

I like to think that family is more than just blood and more than just living together.

For me, family consists of my mom, dad, brother, and all the people who continue to stand by me despite all the highs and lows we’ve gone through. They are the most important people in my life. If I could count on anyone, it would be them, whether they are related to me and live with me or not.

As such, family—to me—is anyone whom I choose to call family. That choice is important because it is the difference between people staying and people leaving. Yes, there are situations in which people may be compelled to maintain relationships, but when it comes to normal circumstances, people stay together because they choose to. When it comes to family, I may include my immediate family, extended family, or friends. I could even consider someone whom I just met in the last year as family, if the circumstances are right.

I came to this redefinition of family a few years ago after realizing that some people, including those whom I once considered family, are only there temporarily. I realized that sometimes we have to let people go, no matter how hard it may be to do so. The people who made me realize this were my aunts and uncles. They may have been part of my extended family, but they were still family. After all, I had known them all of my life and counted on them.

I was probably twelve when they showed me that family isn’t always who you think they are. My grandfather had recently passed away, and it was the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. My mom had also gotten laid off from her job as a senior engineer because the company she was working for was moving. When my mom reached out to her siblings for help and with an offer to become business partners, they not only turned their backs on her but also stabbed her in the back. Ultimately, they started a business and excluded my mom even though they told her they’d all work together. To make matters worse, one of my uncles decided to take my grandparents’ house for himself when my grandfather’s wish was for it to be sold and the money distributed to his nine children.

Despite all of this, my mom still tried her best to keep her siblings united for months before realizing that our once big, happy family was no longer what it used to be. We went from seeing many of them almost every other week to not seeing anyone—besides one or two of her brothers to whom she was closer—for almost eight years. I didn’t even get to see one cousin, whom I had considered my little brother, until he started attending the same college as me.

As a child who thought that family was the most important thing ever, this was devastating. After all, in the wise words of Lilo & Stitch, ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten, right?

For many years after that, I became pretty depressed. Sometimes, late at night, I would stay awake thinking about the past and how different everything was. Our house, once filled with people and laughter, became quiet and empty. People stopped visiting, conversations between everyone lessened, and Thanksgiving dinners became filled with the sounds of shuffling and forks clanking against dishes.

Every winter, while many families are with loved ones, celebrating the holidays and the new year, my immediate family would spend the days like we would any other. We may have had a nicer dinner but that was it. I know that there are many people who spend the holidays alone, but having experienced large family gatherings of 30 or more people all of my life before that point, those times were a stark contrast to what once was.

I longed for the past more than anything, sometimes crying myself to sleep because of it. I didn’t understand how people I called family could just walk away like that. I couldn’t accept it, and I didn’t know how to. As I grew older, I was always at odds with myself. On one hand, I wanted to not care about them any longer. They didn’t seem to care about us. On the other hand, I couldn’t not care, and I couldn’t let go of the hope that things would go back to how they once were. It took years before I learned to let them go. It took me seeing how it had destroyed my mother and witnessing the effects it had on my family to finally do so.

I was tired of feeling the way I was feeling. I didn’t want to feel depressed anymore, I didn’t want to be unable to trust people and let them into my life, and I didn’t want this to be how I defined family.

Family should be a good thing. They should be the people you love and trust. They should be the people that you can rely on to be there for you in good and bad times. Those aunts and uncles, while related by blood, weren’t that. They were holding me back from moving on with my life and being happy, despite not being present, and I didn’t want that anymore. I had had enough. It took a while, but I eventually moved on.

Many years passed before I saw them again. It was during my cousin Katie’s wedding in November 2016. Being related, we couldn’t not go, especially when she had nothing to do with our extended family falling apart. Seeing all of them once again was strange. I had known them all of my life, and yet, when I saw them during the dinner reception, it was like seeing strangers. They looked the same and sounded the same, and I could remember their behavioral quirks from years ago, but it was like I didn’t really know them. I did not know how to react. Hesitantly, with a look toward my mom, I greeted them and gave them hugs, albeit stiffly. All I can say is that it was awkward. 

It shouldn’t have mattered, but it still did to some extent. I think it’s because even when we do let go of people, there will always be some fraction of them left inside us and some fraction of us inside them. Our past is a part of who we arethat will never changeeven the people who come in and out of our lives and those whom we choose to let go. So, what’s family? That’s up to you. For me, family includes my mom, my dad, my brother, and my close friends. They are whom I choose to call family, regardless of any definition.

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