Today in the U.S., it is just about as ordinary to be single as to be married. There are 107 million unmarried Americans who are 18 or older; if you start counting at 16, singles have outnumbered married people for years. Alongside the steady and remarkable increase in the number of single people is another striking development – the rise of people who never do raise any kids.
If you are single and you have no kids, who is your family? Do you even have one?
Those are the questions I was asked to address for a chapter in a scholarly volume. Once the book was published, it was extraordinarily expensive, as is typical for academic collections ($240 for the hardcover, $98 for the paperback). But now that enough time has passed since the book was published, I have permission to publish my chapter in a collection of some of my other writings (some new, some previously published), so I’ve done just that. The new, very brief and very affordable book is Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family? (Paperback is here; ebook is here.)
As a preview, let me tell you a bit about how I tried to answer the question of who (if anyone) counts as family if you are single with no children.
#1 Family of origin.
There is a way in which all people have families – they have the families they came from. This is not always obvious, as the scholars Pearl Dykstra and Gunhild Hagestad pointed out when they said this:
“It is common to hear young adults being asked, ‘Do you have a family?’ and responding, ‘not yet.’ Seldom does the person who posed the question follow up with the query, ‘So you have no parents, no brothers and sisters, no aunts and uncles, and no cousins?’ We tend to disregard the fact that everyone is someone’s child, and the parent-child ties from the family of orientation may last for more than 60 years!”
#2 Are there defining characteristics of family?
You might think that there is a straightforward way of determining whether single people with no children have families: specify the defining characteristics of family and see whether singles with no children meet those criteria.
The Census Bureau, for example, defines family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” Notice that the definition is, in some ways, open-minded. It allows a married couple with no kids to count as family. It also lets in single parent families. But most scholars, as well as people with no academic training, are even more open-minded than that. They see unmarried couples as families, even if they don’t have kids. After a divorce, kids might end up living in a different household from one of their parents, but they still see themselves and both parents as family.
So, a family does not need to include children. It does not need to include two adults (single-parent families count). If it does include two adults, they do not need to be married. And the members of a family do not all need to live under the same roof (some couples choose to live apart, and not only after a divorce). Defining family by easily specified criteria turns out to be not so easy after all.
#3 Family is as family does
This is probably my favorite part of the chapter. It is where I suggest that if we want to know if a group of people count as a family, let’s start by thinking about what it is that families typically do. I suggest some of those key roles and functions of family, and make the case – based on the available research – that single people with no children do the kinds of things that families do. For example, they:
- Care for those who cannot care for themselves
- Socialize the young
- Share experiences and create a sense of continuity and identity
- Exchange emotional, practical, and material support
Those are just the first three approaches I take to answering the question of who counts as family if you are single with no children. There are three more, and from those perspectives, too, I conclude that single people with no children do indeed have families. In fact, in some ways, they are leading the way in creating new forms of family and coming up with innovative ways of living (themes I also developed in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century).
Here’s the table of contents from Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family?
- Welcome to Bigger, Broader Ways of Thinking about Families (new to this book)
- How Our Families Became So Much More Than Just Mom, Dad, and the Kids (new to this book)
- Innovative Families and Innovative Ways of Living (previously published in Quartz)
- Why Do People Get Angry at Women Who Stay Single and Don’t Have Kids? (previously published in Time magazine)
- Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family? (this is the chapter from the scholarly volume I’ve been describing here)