Since early June, Dhananjay and I have been traveling on some combination of a writing retreat and a belated, post-pandemic romantic vacation: our first international travel together. A few weeks ago, a dear friend came to Tbilisi to join us for a week. “Thank you,” she teased us, “for letting me crash your honeymoon.”
We have, of course, had two honeymoons. There were the first six weeks of our marriage — which corresponded, exactly, with the first six weeks of COVID-19 lockdown in New York. (We eloped, with a day’s notice, just as the city was shutting down). I left the apartment only to buy milk at the corner store; most days, I did not leave it at all. We drank Georgian wine and watched Mean Girls and Bridget Jones’s Diary at two in the morning. I learned to mix cocktails. Dhananjay made seitan from scratch. We had, in many ways, what a “honeymoon” is culturally supposed to be — a period of time in which we focused, exclusively, on one another: a nuclear family cleaved from the rest of our lives.
It was, despite the fear and loneliness of the pandemic, not an unhappy time; we discovered, in our enforced life at home, the joy of creating small rituals of domesticity: the handwritten menu cards we kept to distinguish the meals we cooked when the days all ran together; the little commemorative glass vase full of corks from the wine bottles we emptied in those evenings.
And yet, when we were at last able to travel again, post-vaccines, to visit by turn the places he and I had grown up, the places that had changed us, we shared among other joys the joy of a life lived in common. We visited his parents in Texas; we visited close friends in Chicago; we invited friends to join us at all stages of what was ostensibly our much-belated “honeymoon,” fifteen months into our marriage. We shared a conviction that what we wanted, from the family we had made together, was not merely the joining of two people, or even simply the joining of two people for the purpose of expanding our family through children, but the forging of robust, and committed, social bonds: the creation of a family through the adoption of friends as family, what our visiting friend in Tbilisi called the “logical family”: something distinct from — though by no means incompatible with — the “biological family.”
It is a vision I have encountered, variously, in divergent spaces. I have seen a version of it in queer and polyamorous spaces: the “chosen family” as a self-forged alternative to families of origin that may or may not be capable of offering love and support. But I have seen a version of it, too, in Christian spaces: in the promise of the body of Christ, as a family we can enter into via adoption and love, as an abundant and life-giving counterpart to those liberal visions of the nuclear family structures — corporations in miniature — that cleave us neatly into us and them, and envisage progeny primarily as the conduits for the transmission of generational wealthor social capital. (Think, for example, of the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal: a neat summation of the way in which privilege seeks to reproduce itself, in money or prestige, by drawing a distinction between our children and other people’s children).
It is a vision of life where our familial bonds are not exclusively drawn either as a result of biological relation, or as a result of sexual desire, where the family we “choose” is not merely a result of to whom we are erotically attracted. It is the creation of a family through love, and through the commitments we make to one another, a family that in turn envisages friendship, in the Aristotelian basis, rather than desire, as the primary basis for non-biological bonds. It is a family that celebrates marriage, and certainly welcomes married members, but welcomes too the single, the asexual, the celibate, the queer, those in nontraditional relationships, those who by choice or by circumstance are raising children — as I was raised — without a primary romantic partner. It is a family that takes seriously the adage that “it takes a village” to raise a child, and a family that pitches in to take care of all of its vulnerable members: children, the elderly, the sick.
It is striking that, although more than 50% of children in America today grow up in a “nontraditional” family environment, our own political paradigm has done little to support families that do not reflect “the norm”. It is an unnecessarily difficult process to ensure, for example, that a grandparent, or a godparent, or a close family friend, can take on legal parental roles; there are almost no formal structures by which the state can recognize, for example, two people who desire to formalize a non-sexual or non-romantic familial relationship. The modern nuclear family at once has little room to recognize and support families more expansive than the liberal “two-parent” model, a narrowness of vision that ignores the reality and possibility of both more “traditional” family structures (such as multi-generational families living together) as well as queer families who do not fit the two-parent paradigm. It has, in turn, little room for the creation of robust social bonds that aren’t predicated on erotic desire: for friendships that can be as vital as any romance.
Yet if there is anything that I have learned during the pandemic, and during my marriage, it is that “it takes a village” not merely to raise a child, but also to flourish as a human being. Throughout the pandemic, once it became clear that outside gathering was largely safe, the two of us began to host weekly picnics at the Central Park clearing where we were married. Our closest friends were issued a standing invitation: you know where we’ll be, show up whenever you like. Over the past year, those friends began to come more and more frequently; our gatherings, far from being mere idle social engagements, became lifelines. We checked in on one another, made sure we all got vaccinated, developed such an intense concern for one another’s flourishing that to call us simply a “friend group” seemed facile and spurious. We were, and are, a family.
As we are able to travel once more; as we are once more able to see the people we love — including our parents, and siblings, and blood relatives, as well as our dearest friends — I cannot help but think that, as much as I appreciated elements of our lockdown honeymoon, cloistered and private, it is precisely in the abundance of our wider family, biological and logical alike, that our marriage takes on real weight. We are not married contra mundum, as two people whose interest in one another (or in our hypothetical progeny) negates the world outside, but married precisely in the hopes of being part, together, of a wider whole.
It is that expansive vision of logical family, of communities that come together not through idle affinity or inclination but through the forging of real, and permanent, social bonds, that brought me through the pandemic. It is a vision, as the pandemic recedes, that I will not leave behind.
Have you ever gotten the chance to read A Severe Mercy? It's a beautiful portrait of a marriage that begins more as one contra mundum, believing choosing each others means choosing to exclude everything that they can't do together (which, for them, includes excluding children—since the experience of pregnancy can't be fully shared). The marriage cracks open (letting in air) when they both convert to Christianity.