My Definition of Family

Figuring out what family truly means to me. Read more from Holl & Lane at

Words and image by LaKay Cornell

Love is subversive, undermining narrow self-interest. Love emphasizes connection, responsibility, and the joy we take in one another; therefore, love is a danger to the status quo.
— Aurora Morales

For me, defining family is a delicate balancing act. On the one side: “Family is not blood. It’s who loves you. It’s who takes care of you. It’s who has always been there.” Stemming from some combination of my identity as a member of the LGBTQ world and my feelings of disconnect from my extended birth-family, this mantra has brought me close to some of the most amazing people in the world! From celebrations to shoulders to cry on, people who were not blood-related have become my family over and over again.

On the other side, is the fierce loyalty of a mafia “family.” Once someone IS family, you owe each other a serious duty of loyalty. I’m the girl who instantly wants to let my Irish temper go on anyone who has hurt my family. And, if you are family and wrong me, I’ve been able to {metaphorically} send you swimming with the fishes.

When my daughter, Emma, was born, I already knew that her bio-dad was not going to be in the picture. I am super-close to my dad, and so I was hyper-conscious of how not having a dad could affect her. Part of me was sad that she would never have the memories I have. I also knew that just because my experience involved a daddy-daughter relationship, there are plenty of kids who don’t have that experience. So, when she asked where her “dad” was, anyone involved in her life said the same thing: “Some kids have a dad. Some kids have a mom. Some kids have a dad and a mom. Some kids have two dads. Some kids have two moms. You have so much more! You have a mom AND you have a nani, AND you have a papi, AND you have an Aunt Lee Lee……” and we would name 10 people who were in her life – loving her, supporting her, and providing special memories.

I have also learned that what family looks like or who is part of it changes as we change. People who were once close to me became part of the scenery or even distant memories. While initially challenging, these comings and goings eventually became a comfort. I learned to trust that the Universe was always bringing Emma and me exactly the right people. And that mafia style loyalty has allowed me to love fiercely anyone who was family at any given time and let go of anyone who wasn’t.

It was somewhat surprising to me, then, that a change in family structure called into question everything I am becoming.

In 1970, my mom got pregnant and was single. Unable to reach out to her own family for support, she made the decision to move to another state, take a temp job, have the baby, put her up for adoption, move back home, and not tell anyone.

Last fall that baby girl found me on Facebook.

“Hi. This is really random I realize. I am trying to find a Pamela Perryman and think it might be your mom. I think she might know some of my family that I am trying to find. I was born in Tulsa in May 1970. I can give you my contact info if you can reach her and she wants to contact me. Thanks!”

I took a screenshot of the message and texted it to my mom. She called seconds later and said, “I think that this is the daughter I placed for adoption.”

My heart raced. I jumped immediately into holding space for my mom. How was she feeling? What would she do? I asked questions and listened to her answers. I told her I loved her. I prayed everything would work out for the good of everyone involved.

Once they connected, my mom and this lady (whom I will call Anne because this is our story and not hers) were instantly family. The story could not have gone better. Anne had a wonderful life, always knew she was adopted, and had adopted girls of her own. This thing my mom had done - this decision she had made because she felt like it was her only choice – had worked out perfectly.

This was only weeks before my mom was turning 70, and she invited Anne to come and visit us and be part of the celebrations that weekend. She excitedly agreed and brought her dad as well – who also wanted to meet my mom (her own mom had passed away).

And that sentence, the structure of it, brings me to the reason I am sharing this story. She brought HER dad. Who also wanted to meet MY mom. HER own mom had passed away.

I’ve always had THE mom. Everyone’s mom. When I was young, she was the principal of our small private school and a mother to everyone. I had the house where my friends hung out in high school, and she was right there – jumping up and down over the highs and crying over the heartbreaks. I took all my friends home with me from college, and she did everyone’s laundry and stocked our dorm room pantries. As I grew older, she came to every dance party, every award, every long lazy lunch – and again and again she became the mother to all of my friends. When I moved away from her, she even continued spending time with these same friends and they continued calling her, “mama.”

But this time was different. I felt possessive. I didn’t want to share her 70th birthday with this person I didn’t know. I didn’t want everyone talking about what a great story this was and how amazing it was that Anne was at the party. And I didn’t even know that until the party started.

Every time someone mentioned how beautiful it was to get the chance to meet my “long-lost-sister,” something inside of me said, “Family is not blood. Family is who loves you. Family is who takes care of you. Family is who has always been there.” And then I felt horrible. Why was I, this evolved spiritual being who tries more than anything to speak with love and be kind, so jealous?

Why did I want the celebration of my mom’s 70 years of life to center on how much she loves me?

It was all complicated because Anne happens to be one of the most amazing people I have ever met! She is kind and beautiful and has a smile that lights up a room. I wanted to want to get close to her. I wanted to want to ask her hundreds of questions. I wanted to want to … be her sister.

I spent a lot of time over the next week meditating and processing the whole situation, including my reaction to it. Instead of numbing how I was feeling, I felt it. I cried. But I didn’t tell anyone. I was so ashamed.

One week later, one of my oldest friends messaged me and asked me how it was to meet Anne and how my mom was doing. I said (without thinking), “They just got off the phone and my mom ended the call with, ‘I love you.’” My friend typed back: “Wow. How does that make you feel?”

And I responded (also without thinking), “There can never be too much love.”

Just like everything else in life, it always comes back to love. Once I returned to love, I was able to be truly grateful for my family – birth, blood, past, and present – and to be open to loving MY family … however it looks.

About the Author:

LaKay Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, single mom, business guru, and full-on mistake making human. She is the founder of Champagne Hippies. She helps entrepreneurs, business owners, and corporate leaders increase profits + impact by incorporating their values into their business decisions. She frequently writes about the messy road to mindfulness - in work and life!


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