Family. It used to seem so simple: mom and dad, married, with their kids, all living under the same roof. That’s the nuclear family model. It is our idea of tradition, even if “it was dominant only for a brief period and only for some people.”
Now all the standard criteria for what counts as family have become optional. Families do not need married parents (they can be cohabiting), families do not need one mom and one dad (there are same-sex parents), families do not need two parents at all (there are single-parent families), and families do not need to live in the same household (after divorce, separate households are often set up but the people in the different households still consider each other family). Even households that do not include kids are often perceived as family by other people, especially if the households are comprised of a married couple.
Single adults with no kids have families – they have parents and maybe siblings, and relatives such as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and grandparents. Some have important people in their lives they consider family, even if few, if any, of those people are blood relatives. They are among the today’s family innovators, coming up with new ways of thinking about family and friendship.
Even people born into nuclear family households and who go on to create their own nuclear family households can find themselves in a whole new territory later on, if they become divorced or widowed or if their kids move away or they had no kids in the first place. Family sizes have been shrinking so many adults have no siblings and few other relatives. Yet they may have the same longing for what family, in its idealized form, offers. And so they innovate. In How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I tell the stories of people who created their own version of home and family.
Another forthcoming book tells the stories of many adults, such as same sex couples, who could not have created “traditional” nuclear families even if they wanted to. Sociologist Joshua Gamson’s Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journey to Kinship, isn’t out yet so I’ve only read the introduction (available online) and a New Republic article where I first learned about it.
Once Gamson committed to telling the origin stories of his own children, he noticed more and more children who also had unconventional beginnings. For example (and here I’m creating a bulleted list out of his sentences):
- “…one was the child of two mothers and was made with one mother’s egg and the sperm of a man none of them has ever met;
- “…the child of two mothers…was made with the sperm of one mother’s old friend, who remained prominent in her life as something between and uncle and a father…
- “…twins were made when their parents chose an egg donor from an online description, fertilized her eggs with some sperm from each of them, and implanted their embryonic selves into the uterus of another woman who agreed to carry them for a fee.
- “…one was made when his mothers, a couple, made an arrangement with his fathers, also a couple, to become parents together…”
Because practices such as adoption, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy can be expensive, not everyone has access to them. Gamson believes that the “spread of new practices, ideas, and technologies often begins among ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ – who are positioned by their social, educational, and financial resources to take risks and absorb failures – and becomes more widespread only later.”
Not all innovations are financially daunting. In fact, some ways of reimagining home and family are more affordable than nuclear family households, and offer more connectedness, too. Examples include groups of friends who share a place (and not just in their early adult years) and people who want places of their own but also want to live within neighborhoods that really are neighborly – and so they create those communities. By their examples, they, too, can become forces for social change. They show us all how to think about home and family in new and inspiring ways.
Two mom family photo available from Shutterstock