Relationships are built, not granted.

My partner’s sister is pregnant. This child-to-be represents the first in either of our families. His sister and parents are more than a little excited about it, and the relational titles have been flying.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable with this.

This isn’t the first child to have entered my life; friends of my partner and I have a son who is now coming up on three. I was dubbed ‘Auntie’ to this child as well, and though it felt strange even then, I didn’t give it much thought.

That’s changed. In the last couple years, I’ve been spending a lot of time sorting out how I think about relationships and define ‘family.’ It’s illuminated why certain relationship constructions make me squirm inside.

Familial titles – father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle and so forth – are loaded with expectations of intimacy, and degrees thereof. By labeling someone with one of those, one indicates a degree and category of closeness not usually captured by ‘friend’ or even ‘partner’.

The thing is, children don’t get to choose who they call what. Someone else makes that decision for them, decides who they should grant what kind of relationship to. They don’t get a say in who they’re comfortable calling ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’. This is the point where I start to get skittish.

I’m sure this works out well for a lot of people. If one, as a parent, has a trusted circle of friends and a group of relatives and relative’s partners who are generally decent people, this can be an effective way of broadening a child’s support network.

Not everyone is so lucky.

My parents never had friends that were involved in my life or my brother’s. I have a large family on both sides, but no relatives I’m close to, for a variety of reasons. There is no sense of ‘family feeling’ on either side. My parents have their own issues with their respective parents, siblings and in-laws, for good reason. Most are not my story to tell, though I’ve seen more than enough to back them up.

Of their siblings, the only one whom my brother and I saw even occasionally growing up is my mother’s youngest brother and his wife. Those two are the only ones I’m remotely comfortable applying familial terms to. My father’s younger brother resurfaced several years ago, showing up when my brother and I visited our grandparents. I dreaded it; despite having no prior relationship with me, he acted familiarly and insisted on physical contact. I haven’t seen the rest in over a decade.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my paternal grandparents were so distant, or why my mother didn’t like her father’s driving, or why her mother tried to get me to act as a go-between. As a young adult, I felt pressured to accede to my relatives’ wishes because of who they were, no matter how uncomfortable I was or how manipulated I felt. It’s taken me many years to see just how those words – uncle, aunt, grandparent and so on – can be bent.

As an adult, I’ve had to choose who to keep in my life. Some relationships are not worth it. The expectation of obligation should not have been there in the first place. Children are taught to trust adults based on relationships, with familial titles as a key signifier of who to open up to and who to be wary of, and it doesn’t always work out as implied.

Relationships worth keeping are built, not granted by titles.

If I’m to have a relationship with a child, I would vastly prefer it to be one we build up. No obligations based on title, and no assumed intimacies.

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