A month ago Amy asked, “What makes a family?” and drew attention to the curious exemption that childfree families often experience. If you’re married or in a committed relationship and you don’t have children (or at least a “bump” to buy you time), you’ve probably noticed the distinction.
Oh, we meant family… You know, like families with children?
Right. Families with children. Childfree families are not in the club. No kids, no family.
The Fed on Families
It’s not a legal exclusion, of course, most clubs are more tactful than that. It’s simply a social bias. And a bizarre bias at that, considering even clunky bureaucracies like the U.S. Census Bureau employ a more flexible judgment of who is, and who isn’t, a family.
The Census Bureau’s definition of “family” remains traditional: “A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” (ABC News)
Whether or not this definition of “family” is traditional I’ll leave up to you to decide, but I feel that it’s workable vis-à-vis childfree families. It leaves plenty of room for married couples sans children, and only the “residing together” phrase perplexes me. So once junior heads off to college and resides in a dormitory far from the family home the family ceases to be a family? Weird. Who cooks this stuff up?
Are Childfree Families Families?
But I’m wandering. The question is, are childfree families families? And who gets to decide?
An ABC news story on a 2010 survey by sociology professor Brian Powell shows that most Americans believe that kids make a family… it seems that the child-free might be considered family-free for now. (Why No Kids?)
For now, though not forever, I suspect. Childfree families are more and more common and more and more vocal. I genuinely believe that it is becoming less taboo for married couples to openly admit that they are childfree by choice. And as this life choice becomes more mainstream, social norms will shift.
Shifting the Definition of Family
I wonder if this change may even be further along than we all realize. Childfree blogger extraordinaire (La Vie Childfree) and Families of Two author Laura Carroll (@LauraCarroll88) offers some insight.
While not having kids by choice is becoming more accepted with each generation… two people in a committed relationship who live together and have no kids by choice [still] aren’t considered a “family.” The childfree feel they are a family, but aren’t often seen that way by others with children or those who want them. (Technorati Lifestyle)
Certainly there’s a generational shift underway, but I think she deliberately if subtly touches on the crux of the matter in that last phrase. Married couples with children and married couples who hope/plan to have children are creating the bias. They are the gatekeepers, the bouncers at Club Family.
It’s normal to get married and have children. It’s abnormal to get married and choose not to have children. But normalcy might not be the best criterion for defining what qualifies as a family.
Childfree Families + Servants + Household = Family
The etymological roots of the word “family” are revealing. It turns out that residing together (Thank you U.S. Census Bureau) was originally fundamental to the idea of family.
c.1400, “servants of a household,” from L. familia “family servants, domestics;” also “members of a household,” including relatives and servants, from famulus “servant,” of unknown origin. Ancestral sense is from early 15c.; “household” sense recorded in English from 1540s; main modern sense of “those connected by blood” (whether living together or not) is first attested 1660s. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
I wonder how many families with children see their “servants” as members of their family. Few, I’d guess. But maybe that’s the key. Childfree families need to get servants. And they need to stay shacked up under one roof. And then, we’ll be in the club!
It’s interesting to note that back in the progressive 1660s modern usage shifted to emphasize blood connections rather than domestic connections. Perhaps we’re overdue for another shift?
Families, With and Without Children
On the one hand, it seems academic, almost silly, to worry about whether or not the modern definition of families include childfree families. On the other, semantics are important, especially when they inform social norms, behaviors and biases. Failing to recognize that childfree families are families is unnecessarily biased, offers no notable social or linguistic benefit and is easily rectified.
A married couple who’s child tragically dies is not stripped of their family status once the memorial service ends. A married couple who choose to remain childfree or are obliged to remain childless due to health, age, etc. likewise should not be stripped of their family status.
It’s time to embrace a more ample, more inclusive, more tolerant definition of family. Cohabiting with servants under one roof and insisting that marriage produce progeny are both outdated expectations.
Creating and nurturing a family is a beautiful choice, an important social unit, and an thread in our social fabric. Let’s update our definition to include families with children and childfree families, and in the process we’ll strengthen the social fabric rather than clinging to a divisive definition that no longer serves us.