I’m a common law step grandparent, and yes, I just made up that title. My son’s life partner has a son whom I have met maybe ten times. He’s a delightful eight-year-old, full of energy and mischief. He has lots of friends and an extended family full of people who love him. Before he met me he already had several grandparents, and some of those had been divorced and remarried to add new names and faces to the mix.
He probably doesn’t think of me as a grandparent, and that’s ok. He more-or-less understands how I am connected to him, but right now I’m just a little bit closer than a complete stranger.
This kind of fluidity in the concept of family would not work at all well if we were royalty because those people have to carefully determine how many other people are between them and the throne. For regular folks, though, having undefined quasi-family is just fine. Without a throne to worry about, or even any inheritances to speak of, we can bring people in and out whenever we choose.
I know some people call their mother’s friend “Aunty” and step-siblings “cousins.” It’s all in how much you want to include people in your life, and that is a good thing. It’s a kind of oral contract, and would not hold up if there were any legal claims. It’s about who goes with us to the park, not who goes with us to the reading of the will.
My extended family is large, and I have cousins I’ve never met, so as a child I was always fascinated with the designation of family relationships that was printed at the back of a book* that I pulled out of the rack in the church pew. It spelled out things like who was a second cousin once removed. What a concept! Does anyone actually use that relationship name? I am probably someone’s second cousin once removed, but I don’t know who they are.
Recently, there has been a bit of fuss in the United States about the depictions of family in advertisements. Some companies have had the audacity to include gay parents, and mixed race families, and grandparents-as-parents in their commercials. Gasp! No, really? I don’t understand why the portrayal of these kinships should surprise or offend anyone. These families are all around us. Everywhere. Every day. It is normal, for goodness’ sake.
We really don’t need proscriptions about who can and cannot be in our families. What we need are some creative ideas about how to name the friends-as-family relationships. Maybe then those not-strictly-by-the-book family members can eventually become legal family: ‘kind of’ kin could become real relations.
* I don’t remember the name of the book, but it might have been the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.