Writer Alexandra Shimo says she has learned she needs both her biological and chosen family. (Illustration: Ricardo Bessa)

Topics: Ethical Living | Relationships

Every Christmas, my chosen family makes a promise

These loved ones help me cope with life's ups and downs, including interactions with my biological family


My mother’s face came to me last year as I drove the six hours back to my Toronto home from her house in Wakefield, Que. A small Greek nose, soft hazel eyes and a chiselled chin. I held that image in my mind’s eye as I wiped away the tears from the argument we’d had during our Christmas gathering with extended family.

Sometimes, my mom is so overwhelmed by the endless cooking and cleaning required by hosting that she says something that takes my confidence down a peg or two. On this occasion, she announced that I needed to be micromanaged because I wasn’t well organized. The insult cut close to the bone. As a kid, I was so disorganized and distracted that I was often in trouble at school. I was almost thrown out of college for being repeatedly late. 

At times like this, when my biological family says something that stings, I’ve learned to seek advice from my chosen family: my wife, Lia, and our friend Kim. So I called them while getting gas at a pit stop. Should I ask for an apology? If I did, how likely was it that I would actually get one? 

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Kim pointed out that I should try not to bring the past into situations. But since the past and present were intertwined in this case, she recommended I wait a few weeks until the heat of the emotion died down and I could calmly talk to my mom. Her words were like ice, soothing the heat of my roiling heart, and I was grateful for my intentional community. We have each other’s backs.

Unlike some of my queer friends, I haven’t been rejected by my immediate family members, but they live a long way away. My chosen family fills that gap, whether dealing with life’s ups and downs, homophobia from other relatives or the stresses of being gay in a straight world. (If I had a dollar for each time someone contests that Lia is my wife, I would be considerably closer to losing the starving artist moniker.)  

Our chosen family celebrates birthdays and most weekends together. We have also designed what we think is the perfect Christmas holiday. We did away with big gifts and the turkey, which no one liked. Instead, just after Christmas, we gather at one of our homes, light a candle and say a few words. The idea is that the spirit of Christmas should be wrapped up in a promise: to love each other without reservation, to take care of each other, to put the other ahead of ourselves, and to help each other live mindfully in the coming year. 

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Taking Kim’s advice, I waited and called my mother in the new year. I told her I was hurt by her comment. She asked why I didn’t let it go since she’d said it in the heat of the moment. That wasn’t the point, I argued. I expected those who hurt me to take responsibility. She expected those who love her not to hold on to minor slights. 

Again, I called Kim. We talked about forgiveness. Should I forgive those who don’t ask for it? Probably, Kim said, and especially if one of them happens to be your mother. 

So it turns out, I need both my biological and my chosen family. My biological family is loving, but they create fireworks in my soul. My chosen family helps me quench that heat. 


Alexandra Shimo is a writer and journalist in Toronto. 

This essay first appeared in Broadview’s December 2022 issue with the title “Our holiday promise.”

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