by Nora Hille, created in dialogue with writing buddy and soulmate Katjuscha, part of my elective family
Family – what’s the first thing that pops into your head? What feelings are spreading through you? Warm and wide or narrow and scary? Love? Grief or loss? Beautiful childhood memories? Security? Or stressful events that you would prefer to forget?
Family: just a word, and yet a word that is charged with so much emotional meaning and individual experience for all of us. And at the same time, a topic that can be of the greatest influence on our mental health.
The task of the environment is not to shape the child, but to allow him to reveal himself.Maria Montessori
Family Day: May 15
May 15 is International Family Day, so it’s a good opportunity to take a closer look at this topic in the context of its impact on our mental health.
Let’s take another look at the above quotation from Maria Montessori: If children are supported by their parents and the environment in becoming what is already slumbering in them, and precisely when no attempt is made to squeeze them into a mold, they have the chance of a happy childhood and good, healthy development.
Thus, in the best case, family can give us a secure, loving basis and thus fertile ground to explore the world with curiosity, to enter into relationships with our fellow human beings, to develop and grow quite freely in all directions. Fortunately, this is often the case.
- How have you been?
- Were you allowed to develop freely in a loving family and become the person you are deep inside from the very beginning?
- Or have you been constricted or even impaired in your development in your family of origin?
Not every one of us creates a family of our own – but we all come from a family of origin whose system, behavior patterns, communication and experiences there shape our psyche and personality – sometimes for a lifetime. Because in every family of origin we have to deal with patterns from further families of origin (and partly also with traumas), which can have their influence for generations.
Here is a quote from Dr. Sandra Konrad, graduate psychologist, systemic therapist and non-fiction author:
“We carry them [die Familie] in our genes and memories, in our internalized values and our dislikes. We are shaped by them and bound to them – across decades, continents, generations, even across breaks in contact and death.”
Thus, at best, family can be something that strengthens us for life. But it can also mean challenge – and at worst, a burden.
Healthy bonds …
It starts with our birth, partly already in the womb: babies feel acceptance and love as well as rejection.
Little human children need to grow up knowing that they are loved unconditionally.Instagram-Bloggerin Isa, Account: @sternanis5
From birth on, the bond between child and mother (or another main caregiver) then develops. According to the Stangl Online Encyclopedia of Psychology and Education, secure attachment promotes three things later in life:
- social competence
… and attachment disorders
In the absence of acceptance and love in childhood by a main attachment figure such as mostly the mother – this can be replaced by the father or a foster or adoptive parent – various types of attachment disorders, self-esteem problems and stresses can arise that can later have a massive impact on a person’s life, their own relationships and mental health. Mental illnesses can be favored in this way. It is even worse when a child suffers violence and abuse at the hands of his or her closest caregivers.
Never violence.Astrid Lindgren
The U.S.-Canadian developmental psychologist.
Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), one of the most important representatives of attachment theory, used the so-called “Stranger Situations Test” to examine the attachment behavior of 12- to 18-month-old infants in a strange environment by briefly separating them from their mothers twice. As a result of the study, she defined four attachment types. Specifically, these are:
- secure attachment
- insecure-avoidant attachment
- insecure-ambivalent attachment
- insecure-disorganized attachment
Own difficult attachment experiences
I talk to my close friend Katyusha about the issue and learn: her mother successfully hid the pregnancy with her until the onset of labor. And her very young, overworked father adopted his father’s conviction: “The first year of life is dressage.”. It was only a few years later that a pedagogy lecturer, with whom he had a trusting conversation, showed him other paths.
My own mother, with whom I have a more than difficult relationship to this day, felt that the pregnancy was a “cancer.” Both examples bizarre? For sure. Of psychological importance and together with other stressful, partly traumatic experiences of damaging influence on us as children, partly until today, even if we were able to process much with professional support? Oh yeah.
Your own nuclear family: loving and according to your own values
The topics of family of origin and one’s own nuclear family are important aspects of the content of my encouraging narrative non-fiction book “When Light Defeats Darkness – Shaping Life, Family and Partnership Positively with Bipolar Disorder,” which will be published by Palomaa Publishing in September 2023. I myself was able to experience that my experiences in childhood and adolescence, some of which were painful, with my dysfunctional family of origin do NOT have to be repeated with my self-founded family with husband and two children. I have the freedom, together with my husband and children, to shape our family life and daily togetherness lovingly and according to our own values.
Perfect families, perfect mothers?
Of course, even with us now and then the sparks fly, because that is normal. If the relationships are good, quarreling and reconciliation in families is part of the togetherness, the love for each other is not questioned.
When our son was only a few months old, an acquaintance with a child the same age said to me, “You just want to be the perfect mom, too.” I thought about it for a moment and then replied, “No, I don’t want that. I want us all to have as good a time as possible together.”
My heart’s friend Katjuscha, now a mother of two grown children and a bonus grandma of eight, describes the following scene to me: “When my son went to daycare, I had a conversation with his teacher. He said: ‘If you’ve caused problems for your daughter, yes, there are good therapists who can then help her work through them.’ At the time, 26 years ago, I found that very strange. Today I understand it. Nobody can do everything right. I think that no child is spared difficult experiences in the family of origin. Good friends, counseling centers or psychologists can help to process such stressful experiences and to understand and dissolve harmful patterns.”
Another quote from family therapist Dr. Sandra Konrad fits in with this: “…the more we understand our family’s past, the easier it is for us to shape our own path in life freely and happily, with our own rules – without burdensome baggage, but with the knowledge of the secret power of family.”
Family atmosphere and parental role modeling
Jesper Juul (1948-2019), the famous Danish family therapist and best-selling author, held the conviction about the role model function of parents: “Adults alone are responsible for the atmosphere in the family. Feelings and emotions are as much a part of it as body language and tone of voice.” And – much like Maria Montessori – he was deeply convinced that children are full human beings who do not need to be “molded” first. In doing so, Juul revolutionized the parent-child relationship.
Dysfunctional family of origin: professional help can be liberating
Freeing oneself from harmful patterns and stressful experiences learned from an early age in one’s own, possibly dysfunctional, family of origin are important aspects of mental health. Sometimes we need therapeutic support to be able to overwrite these old, harmful patterns with new healthy ones or to find a way to deal with old hurts or traumas. Accepting help here is ALWAYS a sign of strength in my eyes. I had this professional help and I am very happy with the liberation it gave me. Happy about the loving interaction between me, my husband and the children. About a family atmosphere that gives us all space and allows growth.
My soulmate Katyusha was also allowed to experience this acceptance of professional help: “I learned so much in therapy that I wish every person would get this chance to understand themselves better and thus be able to build healthier (family) relationships. I think our world would be a better place.”
Variety of family models
In our society, hetero-normative nuclear families are still the predominant construct charged with ideals: “In 2019, there were 8.2 million families with minor children in Germany.” Of these, married couples with child/ren 70 percent and cohabiting couples with child/ren 12 percent. Single parents make up 19 percent of all families.
However, especially in recent decades, the model of the family has been significantly expanded:
- Foster and adoptive child families,
- Multi-generational families,
- Bonus Parents,
- Bonus Children
- or even bonus grandchildren,
- conscious single moms and
- Rainbow Families
are becoming more and more commonplace. Some count their beloved pets as part of their family. And parenthood is also possible in threes: a single mom together with two gay dads, met in the TV documentary “Papa und Papi – Neue Familienmodelle.” And who knows what other modern family constellations are possible…?
Apart from all these models, life means diversity and it is an alternative way to create your own family and go through life as a single person with a family of choice, for example, or to supplement the family that belongs directly to you with loving relatives of choice.
Personal experience with different family models
My heart’s friend Katjuscha has gathered incredibly diverse experiences on the subject of family: “I have already lived in the most diverse models: initially as an only child with very young parents, then with a single mother. There was regular contact with my father, and later, through his second marriage, much younger half-siblings entered my life.
After that I lived with my mother and stepfather. This second marriage of my mother’s lasted for about 20 years, but she also had a relationship with a woman on the side for a time, and eventually another relationship with another man. After moving out of my parents’ house, I lived in a shared apartment with my closest friend at the time, who I absolutely felt was my family of choice.
In my mid-20s, I got married and lived with two children and a stepchild who was with us every two weeks, in an unstable family system that I desperately tried to bring stability to. My husband, on the other hand, consistently refused to take his role as a role model to the children. A fight against windmills.
Today, after a lot of inner resistance, I dared to marry again and now have a very large, harmonious patchwork family around me. After overcoming my fear of being overwhelmed, I am now very happy with my beloved husband, a total of eight adult children and eight bonus grandchildren. My closest friends*, there are very long-time ones and also new ones among them, like Nora, whom I cherish and love very much, are a very dear part of my elective family to me.”
The concept of the elective family
In general, the term “family of choice” describes a wonderful concept of togetherness, diversity, love and cohesion, which is worth exploring more intensively, especially on Family Day: For it can be particularly strengthening and enriching (especially if the family of origin was burdened) if one finds one’s own family of choice in the course of one’s life. This can be a supplement to the biological family or replace it – at least in parts. An elective family can include friends of any age. But also trusted persons, such as godparents, dear colleagues or good neighbors can become loyal companions.
Sometimes intergenerational relationships develop, experienced as surrogate parents or grandparents. We ourselves have intended grandparents, arranged through Diakonie, who have been in our lives for eleven years and have watched our children grow up. Wish grandparents, with whom my husband and I also have an intimate relationship.
My soul mate Katjuscha defines the term for herself as follows: “I define family of choice for me in such a way that all people and also animals, with whom I feel connected in love and trust, belong to it. People without whom I cannot and would not like to imagine my life. Between them and me an exchange of energy takes place, as my therapist once expressed it very beautifully. But this can also mean that people, with whom I am related by blood, leave this close circle or I do not want to let them in there anymore. You can perhaps imagine it like a planetary system with orbits. There are closer and more distant orbits on which people can change back and forth, even in the course of a lifetime.”
Celebrate choice family!
Friendships – for example, in the context of an elective family – can at least partially compensate for the lack of closeness to the biological family, according to a study titled: “The interdependence of horizontal family relationships and friendships relates to higher well-being.”
Regardless of whether our own family experiences are positive or fraught, gradually building a family of choice over the course of our lives, and thus supplementing or – if they are lacking – “replacing” existing positive family ties, is the aspect that can unite us all. Therefore, on the occasion of Family Day, let us celebrate the family of choice that is possible for all of us! And which can strengthen our mental health so much through appreciative, loving relationships at eye level.
Because our family of choice is made up of the people we have at our side as trustworthy companions, where the chemistry is right, we are allowed to show ourselves authentically and a natural give and take takes place. I think the following quote is a wonderful conclusion to this:
In love, all people can become family for us.Amelie Meredith
 Quote taken from amazon book description for Kindle eBook by Konrad, Sandra: Das bleibt in der Familie: Von Liebe, Loyalität und uralten Lasten. Piper, 2014. Source: https:%C3%
(accessed May 15, 2023). Stangl, W.: Entry “Attachment”. In: Online Encyclopedia of Psychology & Education. Source: https://lexikon.stangl.eu/1996/bindung. (accessed May 15, 2023).  See in detail: Stangl, W.: Entry “Bindungstypen”. In: Online Encyclopedia of Psychology & Education. Source: https://lexikon.stangl.eu/5727/bindungstypen (accessed May 15, 2023).  Quote taken from amazon book description for Kindle eBook by Konrad, Sandra: Das bleibt in der Familie: Von Liebe, Loyalität und uralten Lasten. Piper, 2014. Source: https:%C3% (accessed May 15, 2023).  Dizdar, Edita: After the Death of the Family Therapist -.
15 revolutionary statements by Jesper Juul. In: Swiss Illustrated. Published online on July 26, 2019. Source: https://www.schweizer-illustrierte.ch/family/familien-geschichten/15-revolutionare-aussagen-von-jesper-juul (accessed May 15, 2023).
 Dizdar, Ibid.
 Sommer, Bettina and Hochgürtel, Tim: Data Report 2021 “Families and their Structures”. In: kurz & knapp, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. Source: https://www.bpb.de/kurz-knapp/zahlen-und-fakten/datenreport-2021/familie-lebensformen-und-kinder/329561/familien-und-ihre-strukturen/ (accessed May 15, 2023). Dad and Daddy – New Family Models. TV documentary NZZ Format. A film by Natalie Der Ort, 44 minutes. German TV premiere on November 7, 2022 on #dabeiTV.
 Wrzus, C., Wagner, J., & Neyer, F. J. (2012). The interdependence of horizontal family relationships and friendships relates to higher well-being. Personal Relationships, 19(3), 465-482. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01373.x Source: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-24368-005 (accessed May 15, 2023).
About the author
Nora Hille was born in 1975, is happily married and has two children. She studied history, literature and media studies, worked in communications/public relations for 12 years and has now retired for health reasons. Today she writes articles on the topics of mental health and mental illness as a sufferer and experience expert. She also writes literary essays, poems (preferably haikus) and short prose. She regularly publishes her mental health column here at FemalExperts Magazine and is Editor of eXperimenta - the magazine for literature, art and society. Anti-stigma work is close to her heart: she is an encourager at Mutmachleute e.V. and is committed to Anti-Stigma-Texts against the stigmatization (exclusion) of the mentally ill in our society for more togetherness, tolerance and equality. In autumn 2023 her book "When Light Defeats Darkness" will be published by Palomaa Publishing. A book of encouragement about how to live a good and rich life despite bipolar illness - and the enormous challenge that this means every day for the inner balance of those affected.