Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Family by Choice: selecting your own 'kin'

Susan Ahern, Delaware '80, learned about extended families firsthand as a child growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood on Wilmington, Del.'s, East side.

Her father was diagnosed with clinical depression, so her mother was essentially a "single mom," working and trying to raise four daughters. Ahern, a red-haired tomboy, self-described as "on the wild side," says she found the stability and support she lacked at home from her African-American neighbors.

"I was not accepted at my white, Catholic school. We were poor and lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but, I was accepted as one of the neighborhood kids where we lived," Ahern says.

She recalls one incident when, as a first grader, she was struck by a car and was lying in the street. Her mother was hysterical as her father was trying to move her, but it was Harry Thompson, the African-American teacher who lived next door, who took charge until the ambulance came.

"He was my surrogate father," she recalls.

Her family eventually moved away from the neighborhood, but other people in her life since, not related by blood, have helped Ahern and become her "kin." And, she's written a book celebrating the bonds of kinship, entitled Family By Choice, Creating Family in a World of Strangers, with co-author Kent G. Bailey, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ahern considers kinship part of a healthy lifestyle, as important to psychological health as exercising and eating right is to physical health. People need close ties with other people, she says, and if this is not possible with one's own family--because of geographic or emotional distance--then creating an intentional family can fill the gap.

"In our country, mobility is a fact of modern-day life, with the average family moving 12 times, and the family of the future will increasingly be the one we 'create.' This concept came to me suddenly one day when I was at the swimming pool in Richmond with my two sons. Everybody there was from somewhere else, and that's when I began to think back on my own life and relationships," Ahern says.

For example, Ahern and her husband, Stephen Marusco, Delaware '80, and two sons, Spencer and Austin, have become close with an older couple in Richmond, who act as local grandparents. "They've been there for us, and in their home is a collection of photographs of the boys since they were infants," Ahern says.

She first began to explore the topic of kinship in an article for the Richmond Times Dispatch about created families and their holiday celebrations. In it, she wrote, "The fragmentation of the traditional American family also has created an exciting possibility for people to choose their own families."

Her own book evolved from this article. While Bailey provided the scientific background, Ahern says she interviewed innumerable people about their families of choice. She writes: "Our modern society, with its dysfunctional families, easily dissolved marriages, scattered relatives and exploding population, is forcing us to become increasingly skillful in developing 'kin-like' relations with an ever-increasing range of individuals."

In the '90s, the definition of family itself has changed, Ahern says. One young man defined family "as the people who act like it." In answer to the survey question, "Which of the following comes closest to your definition of the family?," 22 percent said a group of people related by blood or marriage or adoption; 3 percent said a group of people living in one household; and 74 percent said a group of people who love and care for each other.

While the need for close kinship ties has always been strong, Ahern also discusses the flip side of the coin-the origins of prejudice and suspicion. "We can teach our children about their individual, rich, wonderful heritages, and we can teach them about the dangers of human herding-- the destructive side of kinship. We can teach them that placing too much emphasis on difference maintains invisible barriers between all folks, and that genuine understanding and acceptance come only when we work together, play together, grieve together, grow together and form psychological kinships by sharing life's uplifting, soul-bonding moments together."

Ahern closes the book with the reminder that, in forming intentional families, the old adage applies: "If you want a friend, you have to be a friend first."

-Sue Swyers Moncure