Family values means valuing families. At least, that’s what it should mean. It seems like today “family values” is thrown around too loosely and people could use a gentle reminder that the thing which family values should be in service of is the creation and maintenance of happy and healthy families.
So what is a family? Families have changed across time and they vary across cultures but no matter where you go or how far back in written history you go there is some kind of way of indicating “my people”. In fact, in Louisiana where I was born and raised, “Who are your people?” is a way of asking who you’re related to without being too specific about how you’re related to them. Families come in all shapes, sizes and colors and communities with strong family values understand that. If there’s one lady on the block who watches all the neighborhood kids while their single moms are at work then when someone asks who your people are, “I’m one of miss Zelda’s kids” is a perfectly good answer whether she’s your momma or not. Now admittedly, miss Zelda is tired all the time and even she would tell you that she’s carrying a bit too big of a load but what are you gonna do? All them kids need somebody and their moms need to work and their dads aren’t around so someone has to step in and shoulder the burden. That is what family is about.
Family is about engaging with community. Family is about shared joys and responsibilities. Family is about having people who will care for you and watch out for you when you are unable to do so for yourself. Family is about wanting to care for and watch out for others when they need you to do the same for them. Family is about celebrating the light and protecting each other from the darkness. And yes, family is about helping bring the next generation into this world and protecting it so the cycle can continue. Does that mean couples who can’t have children have no family? Of course not. Caring for children is one of the things which a family can accomplish it’s not the singular thing which defines a family’s existence.
I am very closely emotionally tied to this subject because I myself am adopted. After many years of trying unsuccessfully, my parents received the unfortunate news that conceiving a child could be incredibly dangerous to my mother’s health. I have no possible way to imagine what kind of pain this caused them nor do I ever want to experience such pain myself. After they processed their grief they decided that they still wanted to raise a child together and that while they couldn’t conceive one themselves there were children out there who needed parents. Through the Catholic church they signed up to adopt a child. Eventually they got a call and came to pick me up a few days after I had been born. There has never been a time when they weren’t the people who I thought of whenever I thought of the word “family”. They and my sister (who we adopted seven years later) are, always have been and always will be my family.
Would they have still been a family if they had decided not to adopt a child? Of course they would. Would they have still been a family if they had kept trying to have a child biologically and never succeeded? Of course they would. Would they have still been a family if they had never tried to have children in the first place? Of course they would. Families aren’t about the biological creation of children. Families aren’t factories and they don’t have production quotas. Families are a tool through which people can share their lives and, when choice and circumstance allows, they can also help protect children as they grow.
That last part was particularly difficult for my parents. I am a dramatically different person than either of them. They are conservative Catholics who are members of a small farming community in rural Louisiana. In recent years they moved from the nine hundred person village I grew up in to a house they built a quarter mile away from the nearest highway. They live surrounded by a forest which they themselves planted because “the road in front of the old house was getting too busy”. I am and always have been loud, opinionated and much more liberal than my parents. I thrive on the energy of the crowd and while my parents friends’ children eventually stopped asking “Why?” five hundred times a day I never did. I would confront my teachers in ways that my parents didn’t have the first idea of how to address. They would ask me to be more respectful and I would say that questioning the reasons my teachers had for their opinions was the most respectful way I knew how to treat them. We still disagree on this subject.
Behaviors and mannerisms aren’t the only ways in which we differed. My parents both had vocational educations. After high school they attended a vocational technical school which is where they met. My father studied farm mechanics and my mother studied secretarial accounting. After they graduated they eventually worked together at a John Deere tractor repair business in my hometown. My father and mother also worked with their families farming land of their own. My mother kept the books for my father’s farm and eventually kept the books for their parents’ farms as well. My father helped fix and maintain everyone’s equipment. When harvest time came around me and the other children would take turns “helping” which usually just consisted of us playing in the beans and corn.
In first grade I was accepted into Louisiana’s gifted and talented program and my parents resolved that they would do their best to help me live the best life I could and that they would support me however I needed. Sometimes that meant learning skills that they had never had to learn for themselves in order to help me with my homework. Sometimes that meant sending me to educational programs that they could barely afford because that’s what my teachers told them was best for me. Then, as my interests turned more towards philosophy and theology, it frequently meant being faced with hard religious questions that they didn’t have the answers to. Then when the Bishops didn’t have the answers I wanted either it meant supporting a child who told them that their faith was wrong. That didn’t stop them from supporting me nor did any of the other ways in which we were different. My parents love me and maintaining the strength of our family was always their top priority. They continued supporting me through my decision to move away from home to go to college. They supported me when I failed out. They supported me when I joined the military and they supported me when I went to prison. They always have and always will support me even if they don’t support my choices.
That’s how I know what real family values are. I had the amazing good fortune to grow up in the care of two of the people with the strongest family values I have ever had the good fortune to meet. They never disowned me. I don’t think disowning me ever even occurred to them as an option that was available. I am their son and while they have not always supported what I choose to do they have never wavered in their support of me. If instead of having a biological child with a woman, I had adopted a child with a man, I have no doubt that they would still love their grandchild every bit as much as they love my son. They are dedicated to family. They have family values.
As a society we need to learn from them and people like them. We need to remember that family values help build families. We need to remember why families are so important in the first place. Families are how we bind ourselves together for the long haul. Friends may come and go over the years but as they become a more permanent fixture in our lives they become part of our families. My closest friend from the Army calls me “brother” and I have no doubt in my mind that he means it literally. He is part of my family and I am part of his. The friends with whom I lived at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts frequently refer to each other as an extended family. They only somewhat mean it metaphorically. Even though we are no longer romantically involved, my ex-wives are still part of my family as is my best friend. Families can come in many different forms and the mechanisms we build into the structures of our society should help strengthen. We should never make rules that limit how we build strong communities but rather we should seek every possible way in which they can exist.
I don’t care if a child is loved by a mother and a father, or by two mothers, or by two fathers, or by three people who choose not to identify in gender specific ways. What I care about is whether a child is loved. I don’t care if you plan on having two dozen children or none at all. I care about whether you are building binding relationships with people that will help strengthen the communities in which you live. I care about those things and many more but I worry that not enough people do.
“Family values” has gotten so tied up with one very specific way to build families that we have forgotten why families are valuable. People are either caught up with defending why that one specific way to have a family is “best” or with arguing about why that specific way doesn’t work for them. In the middle of all the arguing they’ve forgotten about why we ever had families in the first place. “Family values” has become a ridiculous propaganda phrase used in a harmful societal feud and it absolutely must stop! Families weren’t an invention of the patriarchy. Families were an invention of people who realized that the best way to love and care for each other is through binding relationships well situated in durable communities. Neither is one particular type of family sacrosanct. The shape of families has changed over time and will always continue to be changing.
Look at the words! Remember why families are valuable. Family values are about valuing families.