Father and Mother and Uncle John...: Tribalism and a Place at the Table

This morning, during school time, Isaiah asked me just how many Aunts and Uncles he had. Asked to clarify what the parameters of the question were, Isaiah asked me how many people he would call by the title "Aunt" or "Uncle." Which led me to do some quick addition - and to a number that came out above 70.

Now Eric and I don't have that many siblings. In fact, I have two sisters, and until into adulthood, Eric was an only child. Nor do my parents make up for it at the great-level - each of them had one brother. So how on earth do I get 70 aunts and uncles for my kids?

family foto.jpg

Me, Eric and the boys with just a small selection of aunts and uncles and cousins!

Well, we're a weird family - like a lot of families. Both Eric's and my parents were divorced and remarried, we have more than our share of in-laws and out-laws, and all of our family, because of this, are accustomed to making space for a lot of people. And one of the courtesies that accompanies this making space is the formal acknowledgement of relationship - when you can hurt someone with your title, welcome them in or cut them out by how you describe it, you get careful about making space for people in both language and in person. Add to that our tendency to pick up chosen family, and, well, it makes for big (and fun) holiday dinners.

It also makes it a little confusing for kids. My sons have four Uncle Davids, three Uncle Jons, three Aunt Karens and two Aunt Sallys (to make the latter extra confusing, one is called great-aunt Sally, but she's not the kids' great aunt, while the other one is called plain aunt Sally, but actually is their great-aunt ;-)). It can be hard to figure out who we are talking about - there's a lot of "No, not Uncle David in Maryland, Uncle David in New York City."

In one sense, it also doesn't tell you anything very clear about the relationship between my kids and the person in question. An Aunt, in our family, could be a mother's sister or father's step-sister or step-sister in law. She could be biologically your great aunt, or come through marriage. She could also be a first or second cousin of your mother or father. She could be your mother's step-mother's cousin, or the intended of a even more distant relative. She also could be an old friend of either parent, or their partner. They could be former housemates of either parent or both. They could be old friends of Mom's parents, who *she* always called "Aunt" or "Uncle" growing up. There are a couple of people called "uncle" whose relationships are even more complex.

In another sense, however, it tells you something very clear - this person is part of your tribe. In general, it marks a longstanding relationship, or a formalized one. That is, most of the people who get the honorary title "aunt or uncle" get it by having that kind of near-family relationship before the children are born or when they are very young. Those relationships that have evolved into deep friendships from more casual ones since we have children don't generally have those titles - not because they don't deserve them, but because the children began calling the adults something else before the relationship was strong enough to merit the attachment. Others get it by marrying or partnering in - when my old college friend "Aunt" Bess brought Chris to visit for the first time, it was something of a formal announcement, and the kids got "Uncle Chris" from the beginning.

There are occasional odd moments - I once introduced my "Aunt" Luana as "Aunt Luana" whereupon she, startled, observed "You know I'm not your aunt, right?" Well, yes, I do know that. I'm sure some language has an official name for "my mother's lesbian partner's cousin who has functioned since you were a kid as approximately an aunt," English is not among them. Another close set of friends, whose own children call them by the Hebrew names for mother and father "Ima" and "Abba" are called "Ima and Abba" by my kids as well. We weren't using them, and this was their suggestion. I like it, but we've gotten some strange glances by Hebrew speakers who wonder why my kids are calling someone else Mom and Dad.

Now in many cultures this wouldn't be strange - many cultures address nearly every adult in familial terms - "Tia" or "Grandfather" are honorifics to be applied to any older adult. In our own, however, where formal markers of relationships are often handed out more sparingly, I think it is, a little.

We talked a little, this afternoon, about what all these people have in common. A relationship to my kids, of course - although a few have never met my kids, and some may never meet them. Some of them are very close indeed, and some very far away, both geographically and relationally. Some times it marks a distant biological or social tie that on some level may not matter much.

And yet, I think it does matter - I will never forget my own experience, walking up to the houses of members of my husband's family how nervous and uncertain I felt, and how that changed when Eric's step-sister, who had only just met me, introduced me to her children as "Aunt Sharon" or when Eric's grandparents asked me to call them "Grandma and Grandpa" and referred to me as their granddaughter. I grew up in a complicated family where relationships were not static - where family ties were made and remade, where people married and divorced, where you could suddenly acquire new siblings through marriage or foster parenthood, new relatives of all sorts - where it wasn't uncommon to meet a new aunt or uncle. And everyone was hesitant those first few forays into relationship - but there's nothing like saying "you are part of the family and here's your part - whether it is literally true or not."

Moreover, because my mother was a lesbian, it was always possible to blight the relationship with the failure of acknowledgement. It was always possible that someone could indicate in word or deed that we were not "really" connected, that that family did not count. To their enormous credit, most of my family tried incredibly hard not to do that. My paternal grandmother, who did not approve of lesbianism, and certainly did not approve of my mother leaving my father and moving in with a woman did her damnedest to hide her disapproval and to welcome Sue, to remember that they were tied through the children. Susie's family, that might easily have considered the children of her female partner from a previous marriage to be different than their biological children welcomed us. I have the strongest memories of my childhood of those moments of acknowledgement, that I was theirs - that my step-mother's aunt and uncle included us among the children they remembered at holidays, that people whose comfort levels were pushed worked hard to be inclusive.

I remember every snub, though, every time someone indicated that you mother's lesbian partner's family wasn't like a "real" family, every time I self-consciously used a title that we weren't technically entitled to by force of law and custom, waiting to see if it would be questioned, or someone would disavow the relationship. If this were the only argument in the world for gay marriage, IMHO, it would be sufficient - that no child ever be told theirs family is not real and does not count.

All of this hyper-awareness of who is in and who is out and how we place them gave me an appreciation for tribal ties - for the virtue of acknowledging by title and action "you are part of us." It also gave me a taste for big tents - for the inclusion of those who fit neatly in categories and those who don't. I would always rather welcome someone in than leave someone sitting outside, with no spot at the table.

My children are living in a stable nuclear family, and with luck, it will stay that way. I moved 10 times during the course of my childhood, and my parents had joint custody, so we shuttled between two homes. Except for Eli, who was 15 months when we moved here and does not remember our previous home, my children have lived their whole life in one place, with the same two parents. I can see the merits of that kind of stability - the fact that my children lived a less disrupted life than I did. They have an implicit trust that things will be ok that my sisters and I, and my husband didn't have.

But I also think of the advantages of the fluctuating tribe, of the complicated family, both biological and chosen, where no, everyone doesn't like each other or get along all that well, but where people try hard to make space for one another. I think of the virtues of that instinctive reaction that says "here, we can make a place for you, because we've done it before."

I think of this when I think about the adaptations that will be necessary in the coming decades - the tribe, I think, is due to come back. There's too much work for one person, or even a nuclear family. Sometimes the tribes will be biological in nature. Sometimes they will be mostly chosen. Most often, I think they will be odd intersections of both, of ties that are formal and informal, broken and whole. Not everyone with a title will be connected - some ties will be lost in the mists of time and space. But it seems that the big tribal tent is a place to start teaching my kids about how they are tied to other people - that a wide range of possible connections all matter. That you can be tied by love, or liking, by biology or by someone else falling in love. That you can tie and untie, but not necessarily undo relationships - that breakups and divorce, death and the failure of formal acknowledgement do not mean there is nothing there.

I do not know what this tribe of mine will shake out to be - how many of these people my children will still know and love in a generation, how our ties will change and bind. I do know that I counted for my sons, the names of the people who cared for them, and that the numbers rose higher than my littlest one can count.


More like this

This is why I don't resent gangs & gang activity in the 'hood. The Dine' (Navajo) are born "of" their mother's clan and are born "for" their father's clan. They are not supposed to marry someone of their maternal or paternal clans, nor of a clan "related" to said clans. Around here, there are many Dine' with their clan structure, and many likewise belong to street gangs derived from or patterned after Hispanic gangs. In addition, there are the original Hispanic gangs & white skinhead type gangs. While many would deride the lawlessness & bigotry of these gangs, to my mind, they are as they should be, we being the gregarious & kin selected species of ape we are. We are a tribal species and these extended families, clans, and gangs, based more or less on degree of relatedness or ethnic identity, form the basis of society. In the near future, identification with a family, clan, gang... will be important for survival. Unaffiliated individuals will be easy pickings, however well armed.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

The dark side of organising ourselves into family-based tribes is the ease with which we will descend into conflict with other tribes, who we connect with less. I think there are few more powerful tools to unite one tribe than a common enemy.

I do not fondly anticipate the possible future in which all of us will be at war, all the time.

FSVO "Family." My father was born into a dust-bowl sharecropper family (his mother died when he was 3) and grew up with brothers, stepbrothers, half-brothers, stepsisters, half-sisters, and "cousins" he never did get straight who were sent out to the farm relations during the Depression.

One of $HERSELF's relations married a woman the neighbors might not have approved of (Northern Plains tribe) and his mother (of the alpha matron variety) preemptively settled matters by taking her around town and introducing her to everyone as her daughter. Done deal.

Nothing new in your story, especially among rural folk. As it should be.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

My husband's large redneck family (by which I mean a working-class rural family, not a white supremacist family, as per a recent hatefest on another blog) defines "cousin" as "someone whose grandmother's dog ran through your grandmother's back yard."

In many cultures the term 'Auntie' is applied to any older female person with ties to a core family which may - or may not - consist of persons related by blood, as in the Hawaiian 'Ohana'.

Raising my daughter a bit further south, her titles for adults have fallen into 3 categories: Ms/Mr Billy for adult family friends, Aunt/Uncle Billy for actual aunts and uncles, plus various degrees of cousins, and Ms/Mr Smith for parents of friends who are not family friends.

"Machatunim" is another example of language shaping family experience. It is Yiddish for "the parents of your child's spouse". There is no word for it in English and so the concept of relationship doesn't exist.

Both of my parents come from families of 5 kids, so we've got tons of aunts and uncles and cousins, and I plan to have my baby call all of my cousins aunt and uncle, so it's kind of like exponential growth...

And we have an Uncle Bob and Uncle Bob from Oklahoma, cousin Bob and Bob Horse (a percheron who passed away a few years ago). We also have my husband Ed and Eddie the sheepdog. (Animals are most definitely a part of our family). This is part of why it's so hard for us to pick a baby name!

This is part of why it's so hard for us to pick a baby name!

Doesn't that depend on whether you insist on having a common one?

I mean, how many family members are named "Beowulf" or "Boudicca?" Then there are all of those lovely Welsh names -- and I haven't even started on the Eastern European ones.

Me, I stuck with easy ones like Alaric. Who, I kid you not, actually ended up briefly rooming with another student with the same given name. Somebody has a sense of humor.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

My sister is a little annoyed that our cat, Angus, has the same name as her father in law and nephew. I keep pointing out that we had our cat before she had her father in law ;-).

Naming the baby is a whole 'nother story. My feeling is that if I'm not saddling the kid with the last name "Astyk" fodder for so much entertainment for others (I was once on a radio show that did the entire show on my name, rather than my book ;-)), I can give my kids any first name I want, and they just have to be grateful. I wanted to name a daughter, had I had one, Hepzibah or Bathsheva, and I liked Linus, Absalom and Phineas for boys. Eric, however, does not share my tastes and quite unjustly believes that he should have some say ;-).

Eric, however, does not share my tastes and quite unjustly believes that he should have some say ;-).

Husbands can be unreasonable that way. Our firstborn came as a matched pair, so we split the difference: one Alaric, one Ryan. Since "Ryan" was the most popular boys' name that year, he also got a number thrown in at no extra charge when he went to school.

#3 got "Miriam." Not really far out, but remarkably rare in the USA.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink


It feels like you use the terms Aunt and Uncle at times to express relationship, but mostly to indicate elder status in your tribe/community.

From someone who's currently searching for the perfect word for male-partner-of-your-biological-donor-father-who's-also-your-moms'-best-friend, I really appreciate your post! In my family growing up, aunts and uncles were referred to by first name only (no title), and friends of the family were, too, (no title). So "uncle" seems wrong to me, though it is worlds better than the nothing role he has in our current society.

My children have a paucity of biological aunts/uncles, though through their stepmother there are a number of nepots. As I grew up calling ALL adults Mr./Mrs. except four women (who were friends of my Mom's) who were my Aunties. I had one "actual" aunt, and one "used to be my aunt until she got smart and ditched my Very Special uncle". My children are expected to address adults as Mr./Mrs./Miss (none of this Ms. crap) but around here, many adults introduce themselves to my children by their first names. That makes me uncomfortable. Often I insist on at least "Mr. Mike" or "Miss Lillian". I did have one friend who freaked out when I instructed my children to call him "Mr. Jones" so I told them to call him "Mr. Richard" (names changed to protect the neurotic). My very bestest friend, however, is Auntie Sarah to my children.

My biological family is small, and geographically scattered. I have, however, acquired some people who qualify as family although they have no blood ties to us - they have earned the place through love and loyalty, and thus, they are family.

We don't have titles for them (we tend to use first names for everyone, blood ties or no), but we all know that we're family and there is always room at the table. What's really cool is that although these bonds formed when we were all young adults, our extended families acknowledge the relationships too - even though we 'children' (well, all grown and parents now) are the ones who forged the links. It's cool how the circle expands.

A child can never have too many people who love him or her, and for that matter, it doesn't really do us grownups any harm, either. I hope that my children find more to bring into our tribe, we have lots more love to share.

A side benefit of non-blood ties is the entertainment that arises watching people try to figure out the bonds (especially when you *don't* use titles to give people any clues). When I attended the wedding of an honorary family member, the photographer had the darndest time figuring out how we placed. I wasn't the groom's sister ... she was in the wedding party and I was not ... but there were formal photos taken with my child and the groom - to whom my son bears a startling resemblance, by total fluke, and I was single at the time, raising even more questions, no doubt. ;) I ran errands, held flowers, and clearly belonged but ... well, eventually the photographer got up the nerve to ask just exactly how we fit into this picture. We just laughed and said "we are family, but it's impossible to explain". :)

It's good to be family - blood ties or no. Family knows who you really are - and still loves you. Thanks for making me take time out to be thankful for the family I've been blessed with - by blood and by choice - and for inspiring me to keep the door open for new recruits.

People in the rest of the country appear to be much more formal about using titles than in the Pacific Northwest, (and possibly general West?) where often people â relatives, bosses, political figures â are simply addressed by first name. When I was a little girl, my fatherâs family, in New York, expected to be addressed formally, using their courtesy titles, and gasped in shock if I omitted them, while my motherâs family laughed if I addressed someone as Aunt or Uncle, and questioned (or mocked) my formality. I was a very confused child.
I find it fascinating that, conversely, people here appear to be much more reserved physically than elsewhere: we reserve hugs for family members we havenât seen recently and, on occasion, close friends, and kiss only our spouses. (and of course, young children, on the cheek). We also donât care to stand or sit too close to others. People who originate from other parts of the US and move here seem to be much more verbally formal and physically affectionate, with hugs, etc. Have no idea what the relationship is between verbal and physical formality, it just seems interesting.

Razib, I swear, I didn't give birth to them all ;-).

Michelle, I know what you mean about the first names - I believe in calling people by what they prefer, but I do want my kids to instictively use titles, rather than first names. But that's really hard when every adult you meet wants to be called by first names! I don't agree about the Ms. thing at all, though. For me, since I kept my name, Mrs. Astyk doesn't make any sense, and Mrs. Woods doesn't either ;-).

Applejack Creek, Eric and I were once out at a museum with our kids (I was pregnant with Asher at the time), my friend who had one and was pregnant with her second, and the two kids of a neighbor. Everyone was looking at us, trying to figure out how the families went together 6 kids, 2 pregnant bellies, two of the kids obviously of a different race than us... Finally someone was outright staring while we were in an elevator and Eric said "I've got two more wives back at the compound."


Sure is a lot of family!

I'm an anthropologist. Kinship isn't my speciality, but maybe I can shed a little light on the terminology issue. Let's say you had a Chinese family. The issue of whether to call someone "aunt" or not is unlikely to crop up.

"Aunt" and "uncle" have no direct equivalent in Chinese kinship terminology. Chinese terminology is of the "Sudanese" type, while modern English-speaking terminology is of the so-called "Eskimo" type (the terminology was invented in the 19th century by a chap named Morgan, so it's a little antiquated...)

In Sudanese kinship, every single relation is differentiated. Your aunt has a different term depending on whether she is the first/second/third born, what side of the family she is in relation to you (ego), etc, and in China, this consists of a two character name. In most English terminology, all cousins/aunts/uncles are equated and differentiated from siblings or parents. A "cousin" could be on either side of your family, and the same applies to "aunt".

In Java, and Hawai'i, and in fact, across most of Austronesia, another system prevails, called the "Hawaiian" type. All older women are referred to by the term "mother", and all older men referred to by the term "father". All cousins and siblings are referred to by the same terms, differing only by gender. In Java, your Pak (father) could be your next-door neighbour and your Mbabju (sister) could be your distant cousin in a village a hundred miles away.

I suppose the end result is that terminological precision/confusion is not that great an issue. The relationship between a Javanese man and his "real" Pak is different to his relationship to the next-door neighbour, and the terminology doesn't seem to change much in terms of relationships in the here-and-now*. Whether to call a good friend "aunt" or not is not a universal problem; it's quite specific to our kinship system. And the solution is really up to you - call someone whatever it feels right to call them, and you should go right!

*Having said that, though: Claude Levi-Strauss saw parallels between the tone system of the Chinese language and the kinship terminology of China, both being systems creating a huge network of information out of a small, discrete number of combinations, indicating that they probably came from the same source or influenced each other. Even more interesting, though, is the idea that this idea of being able to accurately understand the relationship between yourself and your great, great, great, great, great grandad on your mother's father's father's side leads to ancestor worship and an inherent cultural conservatism. Perhaps terminology does have an effect!


Al, thanks for the informative comments. I think that's the part that interests me the most - what happens as biological relations blur in different kinds of societies - I wonder, for example, whether my mother and Sue's relationship will be lost in the mists, and my grandkids will simply assume there is a biological tie.


"My children are expected to address adults as Mr./Mrs./Miss (none of this Ms. crap)"

if you are going to use a title use the right one.
I kept my name as did many of my friends and anyone calling me "Mrs. Stephanie" gets corrected- it's Ms. We have a very Southern style neighbor who has their children use titles and she kept trying to correct them when they would call me Ms. and they kept saying they knew my name and I finally had to step in and say I am a Ms., not Mrs. She was not happy but my name is my name. Then again, she was confused that my husband has one name, I have another and our kids are hyphens.
I like the Hawaiian system.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 10 Feb 2010 #permalink

I too have a family of sorts that is forged from friendship and love. I have a "mom and dad" (who are not married, but fulfill the roles separately) in the town that I live in and a biological pair three hours away. At the time I needed a mom and dad around here, they were able to step up and provide what I needed when my own parents couldn't. And I love when all my girlfriends and I go somewhere with our total of eight children - none of which are mine. Because at some point, I was awarded an authoritative voice along with the biological mothers. They call me by my first name, but when I took one of the children to their school play performance because her mother couldn't, someone asked her who I was. She just shrugged and said, "My other mom." And because I don't have children of my own, that brought just a little tear to my eye. It is wonderful, the ties that bind.

Wow. This runs deeeep Sharon. Thank you. It's the sense of belonging and we all need that, grownups included. I can so relate to k8 when she said ""My other mom." And because I don't have children of my own, that brought just a little tear to my eye. It is wonderful, the ties that bind.". I, too, now have to wipe a tear. I was not able to breed, so my relationships with several children in my life are very precious. I am so fortunate to be in relationship with so many who would not traditionally be counted family, simply because we have chosen each other.
With the concept of tribe and extending the table to all, surely we will all eventually find our way home. Thank you again. Sara

By Sara: farming … (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink

When my sons were young, I often took my ex-husband's stepdaughter along with us on outings, and when someone asked "is that your daughter?", I said yes. Because, in fact, as far as I'm concerned, my kids' sisters (technically 2 stepsisters and one half-sister - but my sons consider them all as sisters) ARE in some sense my daughters. But then, I come from a large extended family, grew up knowing my 21 first cousins and innumerable second cousins and some "aunts and uncles" who weren't actually related at all. And one thing I can say for my biological family of origin - we may agree on very little, but we all agree that family is important, and like your family, Sharon, even when some of the more conservative members disapprove of others' choice of partners - well, they're in the family now, so they are welcomed.

I love this post, Sharon!

My two best friends and I are all single moms. One is gay, one is bi and one is straight. Two have ex's. Together we have six kids. We have a lovely tribe going on! Right now I'm at friend #1's house with her son, the other's baby and my son. It's fun :)

I love this post! My paternal grandmother often said "There's always room for one more." And... a cousin of mine says the family is bit like the Hotel California because you're never allowed to leave.

My father has one sibling, 3 half siblings, and 8 step-siblings. The step-siblings are also his 2nd cousins. My mother had 4 siblings and 2 half-sibling. I had aunts and uncles everywhere, yet my favorite aunt was not blood-related, but "merely" my mother's best friend.

What has always struck me as strange since I got old enough to realize it, was how strictly my mother's family enforced kinship rules. When my parents divorced (after 40 years of marriage) my mom's side stopped speaking to my Dad, while my mother kept going to my Dad's family reunions.

I'm all for your inclusive idea of family because I've seen how well it works. My Dad kept attending funerals and other events on my Mom's side and they've finally come around a bit -- several of my generation have formally apologized for the way he was treated.

#7 -- Dianne: I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Yiddish word. What's the form for your child's father-in-law?

I had a family that saw the light and dark side of tribalism.

My (late) grandfather married "out" -- he married a non-Jew (and an Asian woman to boot at a time when it was illegal in their state). His family declared him dead. I met grandpa's twin sister in 1998 when baa-san died. For the first time. Everyone else had died already.

So the big, happy extended Jewish family thing -- with a lot of people involved -- didn't apply to us. Simply put they were racist jerks.

However, as a result, my grandparents had to build their own social networks based on shared values. They were pretty heavy socialists and whatnot so that proved an interesting choice, as people had to come together to survive the 50s. And my parents did the same thing -- I don't have many "blood" relatives (in our clan we marry late and everyone has this habit of getting into industrial accidents or getting old). But at the same time there is a rather large network of people that are close. Are they "family"? I dunno. I never thought of them as such but the functions they served were the same oftentimes.

@NM-- I grew up n New England. You never touch people unless they ask or are VERY close to you (family or otherwise). People in California used to shock me with the hugs. :-)