Family Bonds

We are a multi-cultural family. A mobile family. We were built during small periods of settled-ness across multiple continents and countries, and from the beginning we learned to be excited for change. We are a loose family, open-handed and open-hearted and accepting. Always willing to be loyal, always willing to let go. Unattached. Somehow we forged our family bonds without the promises of commitment, and sometimes I wonder if we are the lesser for it.

So it has been an ongoing debate for years now – who is my family? It is a question perhaps unique to us, because most people don’t have to wonder. They can look around and see clearly, see it in the blood and the law. We are open-minded though, and this question became difficult. If I love them, are they my family? If I would choose them, are they my family? Who is a friend? How is a friend different than family? How is my family distinct from my friends?

I think the problem stemmed from our view of family. For us, family does not mean anything more than friendship, loyalty, and love. So it was only natural that we should begin to refer to our friends as family too, until suddenly it came time to cross continents and the definition of family mattered. Who would come with us? Who was “us”? This wasn’t just a trip for visiting, wasn’t a choice to be made lightly and redone in the future. No, this was for forever. This was an uprooting.

My parents dragged us out of the dirt of Africa and set us down on the concrete of America, and we were lost. Our roots had stretched out through an entire community but now it was just “us” and we began to wonder who it was that got to decide who was “us” and who was not. Why should it be up to our parents alone? And thus began the debate. Who is my family? Do our definitions have to overlap completely? What if someone is in my family but I am not in theirs? Is family a choice? Does blood mean anything?

I tell people I am the oldest of five or the middle of seven, I announce my family ties with apologies and rationalisations and explanations and caveats. We post pictures on the internet of “family” and “friends” interchangeably, unable to distinguish the love. My family is not the same as my family’s family. We all live in our own personal definitions of the word, gathering our own people around us in groups of inclusion and exclusion. We are all agents of our own lives, choice-makers. Unwilling to accept what others tell us we should be.

Am I the lesser for it? Sometimes, when my family is splintering apart and we are scattered across the face of the earth, I feel lesser. I feel like family ought to matter more and maybe I should be a little more attached and a little less open-handed. But sometimes, when I am in a group of people I call family, I feel larger for it. To have such an extensive family, such a variety of history…it’s a large safety net of community. And on those days, I feel like the word doesn’t matter nearly so much as the love does, and if we have all learned to love and be loved then maybe it doesn’t matter that we can’t agree on the definition of family.

How has your definition of family expanded during your time overseas?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


  1. Grace L February 14, 2019

    Good post, Hannah. Thank you for sharing. I agree with you about the concept of family and friends. For much of my adult life, my closest friends have been more like family to me, than my blood relatives. And now being far away from my adult son and my siblings, the people we are close to here are more like family to me than those back in my passport country. I also find that there are people here that consider us as part of their “family”, and we are very honored by that. And one young woman that we worked with for 3 years, but who has now moved to the US, considers my husband and me to be her parents, and has even offered to take care of us in our old age.

    Even so, when I am back in the states and have the opportunity to get together with siblings or my son and his wife, there is a special bond that will always be there for us. It’s special, but I don’t get to interact with them in person on a regular basis, so it’s also different.

    1. Hannah February 14, 2019

      Thank you for reading! I totally understand where you’re coming from.

  2. Grace L February 14, 2019

    And I imagine many of the women in the VA community can relate. We all develop such close friendships when we are serving overseas and we have to become family to one another.

  3. Sarah Hilkemann February 14, 2019

    Hannah, thank you for sharing the ways you have wrestled with the concept of family and the ways that definition has expanded. I grew up in a Midwest American farming culture where family was everything, the ultimate loyalty. Serving overseas broadened that for me in so many ways, as I was accepted into the holiday celebrations of people who didn’t share my last name or my blood. I was invited into relationships that went deep and continue to be so even across oceans. I think your post is a really beautiful look at this concept, thank you for sharing it with us!

    1. Hannah February 15, 2019

      Thank you for your comment! I believe it is part of the graciousness of God, to provide “family” in the absence of blood relatives. He does take care of us, and bless us!

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