Written by Bri Weber.
Art by Michaela MacPherson.
Sometimes when I get a call from either of my parents, I let it go to voicemail. I sit there and watch my phone ring, sometimes hitting the ignore button, and other times letting it ring as I continue with whatever I’m doing at the moment. I might get a follow-up text with, “Call me,” or a quick quip about the reason for their call, but I’ll hit ignore or mark it as read, and sometimes, without remorse, I’ll even forget all about it.
Now, I know, some of you have fantastic relationships with your parents and other family members, or at least one of your immediate family members, and cannot imagine ever doing this. I’m genuinely happy for you, but for the rest of us, navigating our family relationships can be like walking through a minefield.
Those of us with difficult family relationships live in a highly calculated and often uncertain reality where we are constantly needing to predetermine if we have the emotional capacity to handle what our parents/family may throw our way. Our internal dialogues quickly jump from one possible scenario to the next: “Can I handle another homophobic remark?” “Do I have the energy to spare to explain why what they posted on Facebook is racist, yet again?” “How many times are they going to gaslight me for living my life the way I see fit?” “What if they bring up what caused that argument the last time we spoke?” “Can I really limit myself or what I want to say to avoid another argument right now?”
So, yes, sometimes self-care most definitely looks like leaving your parents on read. Having strained or estranged familial relationships stems from all sorts of things; there is no “one size fits all,” but one thing is certain: You don’t owe anyone—yes, including your family—anything.
We’ve been taught that our family bond matters above everything else, and that we have to stick together through thick and thin, but I reject this notion because—um, hello, excuse me—did I consent to these relationships?
In a society that expects the tired colonial notion of heteronormativity, and the perfect nuclear family right along with it, it can feel isolating and disloyal to remove ourselves from toxic family relationships. We’ve been taught that our family bond matters above everything else, and that we have to stick together through thick and thin, but I reject this notion because—um, hello, excuse me—did I consent to these relationships? Did I consent to these undying bonds of loyalty simply because we share blood with one another? What about those of us who have been led to believe that love can only come with certain conditions that we can never meet? What about those of us who have been severely harmed by those we’ve been told are supposed to love us?
We see this structure of blood supremacy everywhere—in our institutions, our relationships, and even in how we view ourselves. There is an unspoken and implied ideal within American society to “keep families together no matter what,” yet families that are fleeing their homes to make dangerous journeys in pursuit of safety and security in this country are met with forced separation and contempt once they reach the US/Mexico border. There are the children taken from one family member and given to another to provide care, occasionally leaving those children no better off than before, and sometimes worse, just because the state said that it was the right thing to do because they share a blood relation.
Not to mention, there are untold numbers of survivors who have been incarcerated and are met with criminalization, rather than support, for protecting themselves from a family member. For example, Bresha Meadows was charged with killing her father at the age of 14, when in fact she was acting out of self-defense against the man who had inflicted years of abuse on her and her family. Another example is Aylaliya “Liyah” Birru, an immigrant from Ethiopia and survivor of domestic violence, who was prosecuted and incarcerated, and is now facing the added punishment of deportation for simply defending herself against her abusive ex-husband.
Keeping families together, no matter what, is not based in reality; some families are better because they’re apart.
For me personally, I was granted an opportunity to begin to create boundaries with my family once I was given a job as an Interpretative Park Ranger with the National Park Service on the other side of the country. I didn’t see this clearly at the time, but it gave me the space that was necessary for me to begin to explore what I needed in order to heal and find my own way. (It also didn’t hurt that I had extremely limited cell service and Wi-Fi in the deserts of Utah.) Of course, this isn’t a solution for everyone looking to create boundaries, nor has it been the only thing that has helped me establish my own. But it was that physical separation, that agency to speak with people only when I wanted to and was mentally and emotionally available to do so, that led me to realize that it’s OK to set these boundaries and do what I needed in order to mend my relationship with myself—and with others, if I so desired.
We need to affirm that no one is obligated to have a relationship with unhealthy people, even their own families.
Boundaries are an extremely difficult matter, though, because while setting them is intimidating, your boundaries adapt and change and grow right alongside you. There are really no hard and fast rules to any of this, but giving people real options to leave their families or to keep them at an arm’s length when it’s the right thing to do is an incredible start. We need to affirm that no one is obligated to have a relationship with unhealthy people, even their own families. We need to validate that it’s OK to be different from our families, that we are not betraying anyone for speaking our truths, and that it’s OK to honor who we truly are. There are many people dealing with family issues—I promise you that you are not alone—so we need to have earnest, thoughtful, and meaningful conversations about this if we ever wish to move beyond repressive and oppressive heteronormative colonial systems and leave no one behind.
Your family isn’t limited to your blood relatives, nor does it even need to include them. Your family is whomever you choose them to be.
So, the next time you feel anxious when you see a family member’s name flash across your phone, give yourself the agency to put your needs first. In a time when we’re made to feel as if we need to always be available at a moment’s notice, let them go to voicemail or leave them on read. You are not obligated to like everyone in your family, or to even love them, and you don’t have to try to cultivate healthy relationships with people who are not interested in having healthy relationships themselves. Your family isn’t limited to your blood relatives, nor does it even need to include them. Your family is whomever you choose them to be.
Bri Weber is a queer non-binary femme, community organizer, naturalist, and sometimes writer originally from Canton, Ohio, currently residing and organizing in Spokane, Washington. To learn more about why the prison-industrial-complex is trash or for the occasional nature photo follow them on Twitter @nonbinabri and Instagram as @raisehellandhowl.