Defining Family

Why I chose that particular night for that particular icebreaker, I’ll never know. It was the first session of a new semester of Bible study, and the request hung out there, spoken and awkward, in the middle of our circle: “Let’s go around the room and say our names and something about our families.”

As a single woman, never married and no children, it was the worst of all possible introductions. I would now be defined by the “un” part of my life to a whole new group of people. No matter how many times I am asked about family, I always struggle with a response. Should I go with quirky and mention my dog? No, pathetic. Sentimental and bring up a memory of my grandmother? No, irrelevant. Typical and talk about my nieces and nephews? No, too predictable. Spiritual and say that God is my husband? No, it would sound like I was trying too hard. Why, of all people, did I use this topic as an ice breaker?

But I wasn’t the only one in the room wrestling with the question. Not only were there three other single women in the group, I also realized that others might be hesitant to talk about their families. Several women had difficult husbands: one was in prison, another was prone to fits of anger, and yet another had zero interest in church or God. While three or four of the women in the group could have talked about their children for hours, I knew there were also women who struggled with infertility and others whose children were breaking their hearts. Two or three of the new moms just needed a good night’s sleep.

But apparently those of us with complicated family situations have learned to summarize and make the best of it. The wives of difficult husbands simply alluded to their existence; the mothers of estranged children included them in the total. The never-married women covered all the bases: pets, nieces and nephews, family history. The divorced women offered their regrets.

Later that night, I apologized to the wife of the imprisoned felon. As the semester wore on, however, discussions around the truth of God’s Word also began to reveal the truth of our families. A story here, a prayer request there, and eventually, the embarrassing relationships we wanted to hide from each other the first week became the connecting points that held us together as a group.

Two of the single women, Darcy and Angela, began helping Kristin who was overwhelmed with her one-year-old triplets. Kathy’s husband suddenly developed an unusual heart condition—the same condition Merrietta saw her husband recover from the year before. Carolyn was trying to figure out a way to keep her mother out of a nursing home; Joanne’s mother had a stroke. Fear of the future connected me, an unmarried cancer survivor, to the woman who feared what life would be like when her husband got out of prison. Two other women, with 30 years separating them, discovered they each struggled with a rough start to their marriages.

And so, after an awkward beginning with the first night’s ice breaker, thirty women began to experience a greater reality: being a family was much more important than just having one. In other words, the question isn’t so much who is my family? Rather, who am I a family to? I may not have a family I am a part of, but I can be that kind of family to someone else. Maybe that will be the ice breaker for the beginning of Bible study next semester: “Let’s go around the circle and say our names and who we are a family to.”

Originally published at The High Calling on June 30, 2010.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.