From the time my son was about one and a half until he was about three, my husband and I rented a room in our house to a friend, Danny. The prospect of having a housemate after so many years of living alone as a couple (and even more years of learning to have a functional housemate relationship with each other) was daunting, to say the least. As luck would have it, Danny was a very compatible housemate for us - collectively and individually. It didn't hurt that he and our son loved each other lots.
It wasn't effortless to integrate a new adult into our home life. It never is effortless to live with anyone, really. Other people are just annoying, even more so when you have to share a kitchen with them. However, the benefits of having Danny in the house far outweighed the challenges. Fundamentally, it was a lot of fun.
We not-so-jokingly referred to Danny as the United Nations. He didn't really help us resolve conflicts. In fact, I can remember a few times when Ken and I fell into the swirling pool of marital combat in Danny's presence and the poor guy just sat there looking traumatized.
But Danny was a peacekeeper. His mere presence in the house (or the possibility of him coming home or out of his room or even just overhearing us) kept us on our better behavior. All of us in a marriage, or a family (that's most of us) understand how each family unit has its own brand of insanity and misconduct. Knowing that there was a witness to our marriage, and to how we treated each other and communicated with each other, inspired us to behave better and communicate more respectfully. What a gift.
I thought about Danny when I read this a few days ago, in the New York Times: same-sex couples are still at risk for discriminatory treatment in health care settings, even in states with domestic partner rights and registries, even with Health Care Directives and Powers of Attorney in place.
So much for my righteous estate planner speech about the value of putting documents in place, especially for same-sex partners! What's the use if people are still going to take liberties to pass judgment on the nature of your family?
Well, of course there is some use in having documents in place, great use even - I still have to believe that stories like the ones in the Times article are more the exception than the norm. Perhaps, in the context of what usually occurs, this story is a bit inflammatory and thus inaccurate. OK - but still, WTF (as they say)??
I usually avoid reading comments to online articles, not because I think doing so is a waste of my time (I know it is), but in these days of the ubernet we all need to be judicious in deciding how to waste our time, we simply cannot waste our time everywhere. I choose to waste my time on food blogs mostly.
However, for some lucky reason I did read a few of the many comments posted to this article, and one really hit it. This commenter wondered whether if she was traveling with a friend - not a spouse, not a partner, not a lover, but a friend - why on earth would it make any sense to kick her out of the hospital room? Why shouldn't she get visiting privileges?
Of course, there is much yadda yadda to say in response, about rights and responsibilities, about the liability of medical professionals and the difficulties they face dealing with competing interests of others in their patients, about privacy of medical information. All important things to say, I'm sure.
But what I keep thinking about, as my mind floats back to the anecdotes I read described in that article, and to the comment about the traveler-friend, is how we - as a society, as health care providers, and even as lawyers - see families in isolation, as islands with distinct borders surrounded by a sea of that which is distinctly not family.
The reality is different. Many people, couples, and families have broad and complex relationships with those who are not family in a legal sense, but who are critically important and sustaining forces. In other words, people who are family in a practical sense. Historically, this has been particularly true for the LGBT community, as many have been mistreated, misunderstood and totally dissed by their families of origin, and they've created what they've needed by way of family elsewhere.
Obviously, when there is a disagreement, when a consensus cannot be reached, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Without powers of attorney and other documents in which we each grant decision-making authority to our chosen person, and in which we express our wishes about care, or whatnot, how do we draw the line? As the Times article makes clear, we do not want just any old health care professional to have unfettered discretion in deciding who or what counts. Legal familial relationships draw the line clearly. At least when we can all agree on what constitutes family.
Where I think we're coming at it ass-backwards is in where we start. We need to see families in a community context and assume that families are interconnected, changing organisms with hazy borders and far-reaching tentacles. We should expect that everyone is welcome, that inclusiveness is a given, and whittle away from there if necessary.
As a practical approach, I'm sure there are many difficulties that we'd face, especially us professionals bound by risk-oriented codes of conduct. But, let me just say this: individuals and families mostly benefit when forced to open up to outsiders. People are often healthiest, mentally and otherwise, when their worlds can see and know each other.
As our experience living with Danny demonstrated, a family can benefit from politely letting others in, even for the most intimate family experiences, and from behaving accordingly.