a young boy in his mother's arms at an aquarium looking at a big tank of jellyfish


How Many Members Does It Take To Make A Family?

Feb 12, 2021

One day on the walk home from school, my eight-year-old son asked me when he could have a dad.

I wasn't prepared for such a question —  a real jolt to the heart on a sunny walk home from school. As usual, I tried to answer his question with honesty and without a hint of defensiveness in my voice. I told him that when my current partner and I marry, he would become his father.

I was met with silence in return to this.

As best as I could, I asked him why he was asking. He replied that he just wanted to know what it felt like to have a dad. Oof. Another punch to the gut.

He continued that after losing Grandma, there are now only four of us left in our family. He listed me, him, his aunt and her son (though cousins, he's more of an uncle to him). He forgot to mention the other aunts and uncles he has, two of which don’t have the same last name. So he didn’t quite see them as family. Another jab, not necessarily launched in my direction.

I explained to him that you don’t need to share the same last name in order to be considered family. That we all had the same mom and that was enough. He muttered a quiet "OK" and the longest 10-minute walk was over.

When Tanya's mom passed suddenly, she didn't know how to tell her son at first. Read how she finally came to tell him here.

With Family Day around the corner, I think back to that conversation. What makes a family?

We as adults know it’s the people we choose to hold dear in our lives, and that it's not always a connection by blood, name or lineage. But to a child, it seems more black and white. It is the people you see and talk to. Any distance between my siblings and me, is that much more between my son and his aunts, uncles and cousins.

"Our little family was as sparse as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree."

Without any connection or communication with my son’s father, his world became that much smaller. It made me feel so sad and guilty for not giving him the one thing I used to want the most.

I grew up always jealous of friends who had large extended families. Families who lived together, visited grandparents regularly or who had aunts and uncles to take them on adventures. I had friends who were so close with their cousins, they were basically siblings. These families weren't just resigned to major holiday gatherings, it was an everyday celebration.

On my end, it was my mom and my siblings. We didn't have aunts and uncles around to tell embarrassing stories about my mom’s childhood, and the only kids in the family lived in the house. Our little family was as sparse as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. So when my mom passed away, it whittled the trunk. Already without a connection to any family from back home, that already small piece became even more so.

Loss is a very real and difficult thing to navigate for kids and parents. Here's how one mother keeps the memory of lost grandparents alive.

Of the vitriol that is often thrown the way of single mothers, I feel this is the side that is rarely discussed. We hear about the impact of children missing their father, but what about the impact of them not having the other half of their genealogy? While the environment makes him who he is, genetics created him. Does he get his mannerisms from that grandfather? Did he miss out on having a half-sibling teach him to tie his shoes? What other traditions and stories does he not have access to?

"Thankfully, while my son is short on family, he is not short on being loved."

I have no easy answers to any of these questions, unfortunately. All my son gets to do is wonder and dream and ask me when I’m going to remedy the hole he feels in his heart.

Thankfully, while my son is short on family, he is not short on being loved. From his arrival to the world, he has had a village of surrogate aunties and uncles who love him like their own. He can go to them for haircuts and advice. He can make Father’s Day cards and show off his report cards.

As for my current partner, he is stuck across the border right now. But they are using this opportunity to build a future father-son relationship. They chat about shared interests like basketball, and my son has even found someone to tattle to when I'm being strict about screen time. My partner’s mom even sent us cards and already considers my son to be her grandson.

These gestures generate new branches on the tree, something both my son and I need and crave. I’m grateful for this, and for the daily redefining of what it means to be a family.

Article Author Tanya Hayles
Tanya Hayles

Read more from Tanya here.

Tanya Hayles is an award-winning event planner and creative storyteller, using various mediums to evoke emotions, create change and magnify moments. She spends most of her days turning ideas into reality through rsvp + co. where event planning is not just what she does, it’s who she is. By night, she is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of 14,000 and non-profit providing culturally relevant programs and resources to educate and empower the Black mother and her family. Tanya is also a contributing writer at ByBlacks.com.

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