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Back in September, when people still went places and did things, my stepson became a high school freshman. He attends a different school from his older sister, so we didn’t know many of the other families. Suddenly, the fall orientation season became an interesting exercise in meeting new people and introducing ourselves.
There had been, it seemed to me, an unusually high number of “welcome” events for incoming students, and I guess that my stepson’s mother and I had been to enough of them alone together to have something happen that I did not see coming: We were mistaken for same-sex parents.
It was the most awkward and thrilling thing imaginable.
The compliments about our son. The inclusion signaling. The we-so-approve-of-you smiles. What a status upgrade! I’d gone from a modern version of the fairy tale homewrecker to a person with rights. No longer an object of suspicion, for a brief shining moment, I had a whole damn month I could claim. I hadn’t even realized how much I needed the affirmation.
Finally, my soon to be ex-wife gently broke the news. “Actually,” she began, very kindly, “she’s the stepmom.” The lovely opposite-sex couple we were chatting with blinked. “Hey,” said the wife, “however you want to call yourselves…I get it.” She beamed. I beamed. Our son smirked and sidled away.
The incident got me thinking about all the relationships in our lives—the people we interact with either by accident or design—that do not rise to the acknowledgment of an official name. It felt like an interesting and delightful moment for my stepson’s mom and me (see? no name).
But for so many others, these unnamed ties are the people who see you and the relationships that save you. They’re often found in activist spaces, filled with people forged into deep bonds by a common opposing force. These are the chosen families, the corporate resource group safe havens and other communities who should take a central role in co-creating a world that wants to come next.
If “we” let them, of course.
Mia Birdsong is an extraordinary student of human communities; an activist, writer, and author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. The book, she says, is an extension of her broader work of understanding how families, friendships, movements, and communities can sustainably thrive.
It’s smart to look beyond social norms for clues, she says.
“The people who I’ve seen build the most expansive, loving, inclusive powerful strong versions of relationships are queer people, Black people, poor people, unhoused people, sex workers,” she says. “You know, people for whom the American dream—they’re excluded from it to some degree.” What we’ve been told is a successful life—nuclear family, independence, and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”—is antithetical to who we are as human beings, she says.
The expertise that exists in these unnamed spaces can offer a model for what comes next. “Right now, we are all glaringly aware of our deep interdependence.” Centering that expertise also does double duty. “[It] positions marginalized people as keepers and holders of that wisdom and knowledge,” says Birdsong.
I also turned, as I often do, to David Kyuman Kim, a writer, convener, and professor whose work focuses on religious studies, race, moral theory, and public life. I asked him for his thoughts on the liminal space we’re all in together.
“This is really the work of inclusion,” he says. “It’s really to say, ‘look, everything that we thought was the norm was insufficient.’ And now, what’s coming out of this time, whatever this time is, is revealing this insufficiency, and who has always been excluded and why.”
This will lead to hard conversations, he says, calling for humility and courage.
“I know you’ve heard me say this before, that the root of the word courage is a French one, ‘coeur,’ which means heart,” he says, touching over his coeur on Zoom.
“So how do we show up with our hearts in this moment? Knowing that our hearts are battered and bruised?” Everyone is experiencing a loss, some more profoundly than others. And recognizing that business—and inclusion—as usual has been insufficient, may also feel like a type of loss. But, he says, we can build on that.
And maybe even learn a new social norm. “I don’t like being moralistic, but hopefully we come out of this with an increased impatience for the selfish amongst us,” he says.