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Who Counts as Family and Why Should (Only) Family Count?

shutterstock_168771323Writing for the Atlantic, Lisa Johnson asked, “Am I not my brother’s keeper?” She didn’t just mean that metaphorically. Her brother has health problems and an intellectual disability. Again and again, she has left work early or otherwise rearranged her life to help him.

If the person Johnson was caring for had been a parent or a child or a spouse, she could have taken time off from her job under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The leave provided by FMLA is unpaid, but it does allow eligible employees to take that time off and to know that their job will still be waiting for them when they return.

The “F” in FMLA refers to family, so Johnson was surprised and none too pleased to discover that under the Act, siblings don’t count as family. She was not able to take time off under FMLA to care for her brother. In her article, she described other examples of adults dedicating a tremendous amount of time and effort to the care of their siblings. She thinks the federal law should be expanded to include siblings, and learned that some states, such as Minnesota and Maine, have modified the law to do just that.

Long-time readers of my books (such as Singled Out and Singlism) and my blogs know that I have been making the argument about expanding the scope of FMLA for nearly a decade. I don’t see why we have to add only siblings or other close family members, though. What people are doing when they provide this kind of intensive caring is quite admirable and selfless, and the recipients of the caring are in great need. So shouldn’t we think more expansively about who qualifies?

In trying to understand why siblings might not be covered under FMLA whereas a spouse or parents or children are, Johnson notes: “Most siblings do not live with each other nor are they legally responsible for one another. Most siblings lead independent lives.”

Those are important points, but I think they suggest just the opposite conclusion: People who do not live with a sibling (or anyone else) and who do not have another person legally responsible for them and who live independent lives may be most in need of care from someone who is covered under FMLA. We already know, from systematic research, that single people are especially likely to provide long-term care to those who are most in need of it. Those recipients include lots of people who are not their children or their parents (and of course, not a spouse). So singles are giving intensive help without any legally-protected leaves from work. When they need that kind of help themselves, they cannot get it from siblings or other relatives or close friends. Unless they have grown kids or parents who are still living and able to help, they have no one who can provide the caring they need without worrying about the fate of their jobs.

Lisa Johnson’s question was, basically, “who should count as family?” Mine is broader: Why should only family count?

Hospital visit image available from Shutterstock.

Who Counts as Family and Why Should (Only) Family Count?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2014). Who Counts as Family and Why Should (Only) Family Count?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Nov 2014
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