noun. a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.
noun. all the descendants of a common ancestor.
noun. a group of related things.
The purpose of families is to maintain the well-being of its members and of society. Ideally, families would offer predictability, structure, and safety as members mature and participate in the community.
My nuclear family is small and tight. Mum and Dad got married young (18 and 21) and had me young (20 and 23) and then my sister 18 months later. Dad was applying for a farm manager role and the advert (back in 1977) said you had to be married! I think this requirement was to do with the fact that mental health can be such an issue for single farmers as they experience significant social isolation. I do often wonder how they did it. At key ages in my life I have reflected on the fact that at the same age as I was celebrating with my friends, my Mum and Dad had teenagers tagging along. I am a responsible person, but their familial responsibilities at the same age just did not compare.
Life growing up had not been easy for either of them, Mum especially. Mum’s parents, the Chesters, had emigrated to Canada which is where she and her siblings were born. When Mum was 9 her Dad, my maternal grandfather, had an aneurysm in the shower after a cricket match one day, whilst Gran had popped to the shops and he died. This sent my maternal grandma spinning as she was left as a young Mum with 3 children under 9 in Ontario. The children were sent back to live with childless relatives in the UK as Gran’s mental health unsurprisingly suffered from the traumatic loss.
I can remember Mum telling us these stories as we were growing up but they were always emotionally charged and made her very sad. One particular memory is of her pointing out the farm house where she and her siblings were fostered as the Aunty who had taken them in could not cope. She described how they were treated, that the couple wanted to separate the 3 of them and adopt the younger 2, but Mum’s fighting spirit held the sibling unit together. Gran came back to the UK but was in and out of hospital but in all honesty, I don’t think she ever fully recovered. I had just started primary school when she died, so I was too young to go to the funeral, but I feel for my Mum losing both of her parents so soon. Gran was a primary school teacher, so I think my vocation was in my DNA.
As I have progressed in my career and learnt about mental health and wellbeing, trauma and attachment issues, I understand and empathise more and more with the complexities my Mum and her 3 siblings experienced and the emotional scars it has left with them. I am no Freud, but I see their behaviours and attitudes through a different lens perhaps due to my semi-trained eye, than to my sister. My training helps me to understand them, to feel empathy and compassion for them. I can perhaps be more objective in how I see and explain things, as I am when I am supporting vulnerable families, victims of trauma, looked after children or investigating safeguarding incidents at school.
So Mum and Dad as a young couple ended up pretty much bringing up my uncle and my aunt, as their Father had died and their Mother was in and out of hospital. The lines of siblings and siblings-in-law were blurred and I see my Aunt and Uncle default to the parent-child mode in how they interact with my parents. This has led to explosive rows over the years between them all. Mum and Dad found stability and security in each other, my Aunt married and had 4 children, but divorced and is a single parent. My uncle went back to Canada to find his roots, he was nomadic for many years, and married/ started a family late. Unfortunately, one of the rows has led to a family estrangement and my Mum and he no longer speak. So I have lost contact with him and do not really know his wife nor my cousin that well.
My Dad’s side of the family are less complicated as we have less to do with them. My paternal Grandfather was a hard man, I can’t really remember him. My paternal Grandmother was mean, she didn’t like Mum and did not approve of the marriage as she felt that Dad had married beneath them. Arguments between my maternal and my paternal Grandmothers at Mum and Dad’s wedding and then my Christening resulted in my sister not being christened as they could not face another family drama. Grandma Wilson was always on Mum’s case and Dad was loyal to my Mum, his wife and the mother of his children, so he consistently defended her, which led to a period of estrangement and silence before she died. So I have been brought up without Grandparent relationships in my life, on both sides of the family tree.
Dad’s Dad, my paternal Grandfather had a family before he met my paternal Grandma, so my Dad has 4 older half siblings he has never met. We have never done our family tree, although I have considered it as I have family in this country I have never met and family in Canada I have met when I was younger. In fact when I was at university, I had a friend, Chris Smith, who was convinced I was related to his Mum, a tall, freckly red head from Cornwall (I was brought up in neighbouring Devon) – he would often comment that we had similar mannerisms and we joked that perhaps there was a distant bloodline.
My sister and I are chalk and cheese in many ways, but we are very close. She is someone I would choose to have in my life as a friend, even if we were not related. Our lives have gone off in very different directions, at very different paces and ended up in very different places – she didn’t go to university, married young and has 2 teenagers. Our family values bond us together despite how different we are. I am extremely proud of the amazing mother and wife she is, of the joy my beautiful nephew and niece give me and the support that my brother-in-law gives me as a constant in my life too.
Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain the same.
My family are a source of love and support. My family provide a strong foundation in my life and have instilled strong values in me. My family enable me to be secure and stable, they empower me to be independent. My family may be complicated and messy in some ways, but in other ways my family is very simple. My family also protect me – I am confident that my Grandparents are my Guardian Angels who hover over me and keep me safe and well.
Life often goes full circle. My best friend moved to Canada 10 years ago so I go over often to see her and my God children in Toronto. On my last trip to the East Coast we went on a road trip to Kingston to reconnect with some of my Canadian roots. We went for dinner at my 2nd cousin’s house and I went to have a cup of tea with my maternal Grandmother’s best friend. I had met her when I was a young child on a visit to see extended family, but 30+ years had passed. It was lovely to hear stories about my Grandmother and my Grandfather in their early years in Kingston. She and her daughter told me stories I had never heard before. Her daughter then took me to ‘meet’ my Grandfather’s grave. It was an emotionally charged experience driving through a huge, beautiful cemetery, and pulling up in front of my Grandfather’s headstone. I bizarrely felt very connected to a man I had never met before, by standing in front of his grave. I am sad for my Grandmother that she prematurely lost the love of her life, I am sad for my Mum that she lost h er father so young, I am sad that I never got to meet him but his memory lives on.
If family is anyone who loves you unconditionally, then perhaps we don’t need to have met in person to feel nurtured by familial love.