Traveling with Voluntary Kin: “She’s Like a Sister to Me”

Traveling with Voluntary Kin: “She’s Like a Sister to Me”

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cutout image of a family

What constitutes kin? There’s biology, law… and also choice.

When we think about family travel, we have usually pictured mothers and fathers cavorting with children that look like them, maybe including grandparents or other extended family members. These days, however, we are also more aware than ever of the opportunities and challenges associated with different types of families that travel, including, for example, stepfamilies, adoptive families, and LGBTQ families.

But there is another type of family relationship that is often overlooked and should be taken into consideration: people we think of as family but who are not related to us by biology or law. We call these family members by a number of names: voluntary kin, chosen kin or fictive kin. Unlike a biological family member or an in-law, voluntary kin may be someone you have known for many years and regard as a brother, sister, mother or grandmother, even though that person is not related to you.

Voluntary kin have always been a part of many cultures and play different roles. It is important to understand that these family relationships exist and that there are particular issues to keep in mind during group travel.

Identifying Voluntary Kin
Voluntary kin are identified by the members of a relationship themselves. We have interviewed many people who say they have voluntary kin and they tell us they “just know” when a person is family to them. They are very clear that this relationship is not the same as it would be with a best or close friend.

More often than not, voluntary kin relationships have been in place for a long time, sometimes since childhood. Other times they grow out of a close college or work relationship. In still other cases, voluntary kin relationships form when people don’t live close by or have much in common with their family of origin. Whatever the reason, voluntary kin relationships form, we know that these people clearly feel like family, they are long-lasting relationships, and they meet important needs.

Meeting important needs is a central part of what voluntary kin are all about. Here are some examples (the names have been changed to protect people’s privacy):

  • Bernadette is the mother of three children. Her only son passed away after a battle with cancer when he was a young adult. His best friend, Steve, became like a son to her. He calls her “Mom” and treats her like his mother. She is “Grandma” to his children, and Bernadette’s daughters also call Steve’s children family and treat them as their nieces and nephews.
  • Jeanine is not close to her family of origin and says they just don’t have much in common. She has two gay male friends, Mike and Matty, whom she considers family. She talks about them as “my brothers” and often travels to spend holidays with them. Jeanine has her own room in their home when she comes to visit.
  • Michelle and Bob have three young people in their lives whose grandparents live in another state. Michelle and Bob go to the kids’ school programs and sporting events, and the kids and their parents come to a weekly dinner at their home. Michelle and Bob are very aware of the important role the biological grandparents play and they are careful not to interfere in that relationship. Instead, they call themselves “grandfriends” to these kids.

While we can see the very real benefits of having these supportive voluntary kin relationships, we can also anticipate some challenges when voluntary kin travel together, perhaps also with family of origin. It is important to understand how common and important voluntary kin relationships are, but we must also be aware of potential complications when these families are together.

What to Know
As not all family relationships are based in biology or law, care should be taken not to assume everyone in a travel group is related in a traditional way. Extra effort is required to understand what non-related family members mean to each other. Before making travel arrangements for a family, professional travel planners should ask if there is anything that needs to be known in order to make travel more comfortable for everyone.

When planning travel – especially accommodation and activities – for a family group that includes both family of origin and voluntary kin, one important issue is whether there are existing relationships. For Michelle and Bob in the example above, they enjoy being in the “grandfriend” role with these children. However they are careful not to have the kids call them “grandma” or “grandpa” as they are afraid it would hurt their grandparents’ feelings. So the kids call them by their first names. The family of origin and voluntary kin know about each other and appreciate each other, but they are not necessarily close.

How much to bring these family groups together is a big decision for anyone with voluntary kin. The person who usually makes the decision about this is the lynchpin or “middle” person, for whom these the relationships can be complex. In some cases, the different groups may want to spend a lot of time together; in other cases, they may need some private time and space apart..

In summary, voluntary kin are a growing family relationship that, in the best of circumstances, can be a wonderful addition to one’s life. When planning travel, it is best not to assume everyone is close and comfortable with each other. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what kinds of travel arrangements and accommodations will work best for everyone involved.

Dawn BraithwaiteDawn O. Braithwaite, Ph.D., is a Willa Cather Professor of Communication Studies and Department Chair at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has been studying different types of families for 25 years and is herself a stepdaughter, adopted child and member of a voluntary family..

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