Saturday, December 11, 2010


People ask me a lot if the closely related dogs enjoy a different type of relationship – in other words, if Halo is more bonded to Asia and Zoey because those are her kids, and Maize/Cadi and Cadi/Syd. It sounds kind of romantic and nice to say yes, but that would not be accurate.

The two most bonded dogs in our little pack are Zoey and Asia, and I think that is really because Asia was the most tolerant of Zoey’s very high cuddle-bug needs; I do not think it has anything at all to do with the fact that they are full sisters.

The stories we tell ourselves about “family” determine how we view family and feel about families. I remember being at a 50th anniversary party where someone was announcing – and celebrating -- the couples’ children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I overheard one person dismissing one of the great grandchildren as not really a great grandchild because it was a “step” relationship, as if connections between members of a family could only be based on genetic material.

There is something special about being related by blood – a connection that is biological. But maybe even more, being related typically means we share a history and I think it is those intertwined stories that create and sustain strong bonds. There is something very wonderful about being with people who have always known us and who have known the important people in our lives.

However, being related is not the same thing as having a relationship – the existence of shared blood does not ensure or even require relationships. Family members can – and do – elect not to maintain relationships with their relatives, and that can be perfectly appropriate; being related is not a mandate.

So many of us have created a story in our heads that the only real family is a genetic one. I suggest to you that genetic obligation is a really unfortunate way to define a family, and that the best way to create a wonderful family is by choice – not DNA.

I have two amazingly great sisters – and I love that we are related and share a history. I choose to have them in my life – not because we are related – but because they are wonderful people that I love, respect, and enjoy. Our shared past is a bonus, but it is not enough – and indeed I have shared pasts with relatives that I do not have in my life. All good relationships involve choice.

Dear Husband and I made a choice to be together – we are not related but our connection is strong and he is my best friend (most of the time ;). If you think about it, you will probably realize that the most intimate, close relationships in your life are not with people with whom you share genetic material. Indeed, it is the relationships we CHOOSE that are the most meaningful.

When we choose a relationship, we are not relying on familial connections to establish/maintain the relationship. Yes, parents still love their kids when the kids are jerks – but really -- is it a good thing to rely on parental dispensations throughout life? Is that a real relationship – or simply genetic obligation? And is genetic obligation the proper foundation for meaningful relationships? I do not think so…

Dear Husband and I created a family when we brought our lives together – can you tell by how I talk about the various children which are “mine” and which are “his”?

Step-families are a particular challenge. It is normal and expected that while the parents might want everyone to be one big happy family, the children have secret and not so secret plots to get their version of the family back. In other words, it is normal for people in a step-family to have different notions about who exactly is family – and who are the outsiders.

This is perfectly understandable – children do not ask to have more people dumped in the mix. And even in families that are not “step” there are always little groups and collusion and secrets and so on – in a step-family it is just amplified.

And it is normal to question who is loved most and where the loyalties are and/or should be – this happens in all families, but again – in a step-family it is louder and bigger. But here is what I think is the bottom line – a step-family is a family of choice, and it is those choice relationships that can be some of the most meaningful of our lives.

Blood relatives – especially parents – are really sort of compelled to love even the most unlovable people, but if your Evil Stepmother loves you – well, you are golden, aren’t you?

As evidence of the power of connection without genetic obligation, I offer this – a picture of a multi-generational family that includes blood relatives as well as a step-child/brother/uncle/grandchild/great-grandchild: the New Mr. Wonderful. He is not loved less simply because his origins are different – rather, he enjoys “choice” relationships, and those are the best relationships of all!

And thanks to Lisa, who had the new family member sent to Sydney – but modeling the ideal step-family, Sydney’s Mr. Wonderful has been welcomed and embraced by all – with no dismissive comments that he is not a real family member just because he is not related by blood.

We can learn a lot from dogs.


  1. I know Maizie is simply showing her enjoyment of having her picture taken again (not) but she seems to enjoy the old headless Mr. Wonderful more! And I am not sure I would want to wake up and see that smile in the morning either. Take his head off Maizie. (Sometimes I want to take my own Mr. Wonderful's head off in the morning!)

  2. Well of course she enjoys him more, he has that familiar, headless way about him! ;-) It takes time for new members of the family to warm up to each and every person in that family, no? Because I know that MY dog is willing to share, Maize will get to know him in her own time! Snort! And I do have to add, Syd looks stunning in this pic!