When I was 15, my parents got divorced. One night during that particularly turbulent time, I told my father that I still loved him. Despite the divorce, despite all the bad things in the world, I believed there was still this thing called love that could and would hold our crumbling family together. (I can only imagine just how naive I sounded giving lectures on love to a twice-divorced man.) My father gave me a look that was both bitter and patronizing, and spat back: “There is no such thing as love. There is sex, and loyalty, but there is no love.”
I recalled this exchange in a moment of psychoanalytic insight while sitting at the YPU debate on Tuesday night, straining to understand former senator Rick Santorum over the echo of Woolsey Hall and the hisses of my fellow Yalies.
In his speech to the Yale community, the senator talked a lot about family. That was to be expected. As several friends of mine pointed out afterwards, the motion he was defending — “Resolved: Government is destroying the family” — more than invited his commentary on what he termed the ”foundational building block of society.” According to Santorum, the family is comprised of a mother, a father and children. And they all apparently go to church.
I would define family differently, and not just because my parents are divorced, leading me, according to Santorum, to have “mental and physical problems” that children from two-parent families don’t have. I would define family differently, because to me, family is not something that people have or don’t have.
Family is a flexible term you use for the people who hold a particular kind of relationship to you, the people who fulfill a certain function in your life. You may not have parents, but you have people who inspire you, people who mentor you, people who love you at your worst as well as at your best. You may not have siblings, but you have friends whom you can call at any hour of the day or night with a problem, a concern, a question, a happy moment. Your blood relatives might be gone, toxic or simply uninterested, but wherever you are, you are part of a web of relationships that holds a community together. Those relationships — that community — I believe, can and should be called a family.
Santorum’s speech made me angry, and not just because his definition of family was both narrow and narrow-minded. Santorum made me angry because he defined family as something that either exists by his definition or doesn’t exist at all. He did not allow for all of the important relationships that help everyone navigate their lives. These are the fundamental building block of society. And they come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, genders, ages, places and times.
In his speech, the senator talked a lot about “the facts.” I would ask him, rather, to consider realities — the realities of people falling in and out of love, the realities of pregnancies, abortions and births, the realities of diseases nobody plans for, the realities of immigration which rarely goes as planned, the realities of people living messy and complicated lives that, for the most part, they do not anticipate.
My parents did not get married thinking they would divorce, just as I later did not go to music school thinking I would end up in African studies. In many ways, we do not choose who we become, what happens to us or the resources available to us to take the courses of action we’d like to take.
To me, family means the people with whom, and for whom, I will go a very long way. The hard truth of life is that I can’t always be sure they will be there for me. But in this way, maybe, I am different from my father. I believe in a love beyond sex, loyalty and blood — a love that I can act out toward the people around me.
Is this a kind of love the government can support? I don’t know. But I know this is a kind of family the government can do little to destroy. This kind of love and these kinds of families are ultimately what pulls people up and gives them the strength to go on when life does not go according to plan.
Klara Wojtkowska is second-year master’s student in African studies .