“Starting a family.” It is a phrase that has been commonplace for quite a long time. To many people, it seemed benign. Or they just never thought about it.
Recently, though, it got challenged when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:
Stop saying “start a family” when you mean “have kids”. A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don’t need kids to be a family.
Within two days, the tweet had been liked about 152,000 times and retweeted around 37,000 times.
I know how Lucy Huber feels. A few years ago, I traveled around the country, visiting people in their homes and asking them about the important people in their lives. I studied demographic patterns, too. I described what I learned in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. What I found was that people are living in all sorts of innovative ways and laying claim to many different kinds of families.
Only one major kind of household is becoming less popular – the most sentimentalized one of mom, dad and the kids living in their nuclear family home. In the U.S., there are now more households consisting of just one person than households of married parents and their children.
The rise of single people (including those who do and do not live alone) is one of the most significant demographic developments of the past half-century. Alongside it is another striking development – the increase in 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?
Who counts as family if you are single with no kids? Or does anyone? Those are questions I addressed for a chapter in a scholarly volume and then later in a very brief collection, Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family? I’ve discussed these questions before here at this Single at Heart blog, but with Twitter inspiring so many people to think harder about them, I wanted to come back to the topic.
Here are three of the ways I tried to answer the question of who (if anyone) counts as family if you are single with no children.
- 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!”
- 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.
- Family is as family does
This is probably my favorite approach to thinking about family. 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. Based on the available research, I think I can make the case 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.
Here’s the table of contents from Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family?
- Welcome to Bigger, Broader Ways of Thinking about Families
- How Our Families Became So Much More Than Just Mom, Dad, and the Kids
- Innovative Families and Innovative Ways of Living
- Why Do People Get Angry at Women Who Stay Single and Don’t Have Kids?
- Single, No Children: Who Is Your Family?
As families continue to evolve and open their arms to all sorts of new configurations, I think our understandings of them will evolve, too. And not just on Twitter.