April 23, 2014

Childfree Families

There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Child-Free (image courtesy twoday magazine)

There’s Nothing Wrong With Childfree Families (Credit: twoday magazine)

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

Family Portrait - Montreal 1963

Family Portrait – Montreal 1963 (Photo credit: Mikey G Ottawa)

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.

About virtualDavis

G.G. Davis, Jr. (aka virtualDavis) is a writer, storyteller, unabashed flâneur and eager-beaver uncle. Despite two whiz-bang nieces, two superstar nephews, and rewarding teaching/coaching stints at the American School of Paris and Santa Fe Preparatory School, he remains willingly, enthusiastically and happily childfree. His WNK posts are part of an ongoing attempt to understand why. Rosslyn Redux, a transmedia chronicle about rehabilitating an historic property in the Adirondacks, offers a more ironic twist on his childfree adventure. He also blogs at virtualDavis.com and EssexonLakeChamplain.com. Connect with G.G. Davis, Jr. via Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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  • http://lauracarroll.com/ Laura Carroll

    Hi there–Laura Carroll La Vie Childfree Blogger — Thanks for the mention! Here  is some additional info on how people view “what is a family” by Brian Powell — from his book Counted Out  http://laviechildfree.com/2010/10/families-of-two/

    • http://virtualDavis.com virtualDavis

      Thanks, Laura, for leading me back to your post.

      Generally good news, though I’m still fascinated with the underlying assumptions and resistance to change that childfree couples become accustomed to in explaining/justifying their lifestyle choices. In my post, I looked at the etymology of the word “family” and was simultaneously surprised and fascinated with early usage of the word including servants in the definition. I suspect that by most peoples’ 21st century perspective most of us do not have servants, much less consider them part of our families. Maybe my perspective is unusual? And I believe that the definition has also evolved away from the notion that a family cohabits a household. My siblings and I shipped out to boarding school rather young, but we certainly didn’t consider ourselves less a family.

      I encourage us to amplify the idea of family to celebrate — as inclusively as practical — those who create and nurture this fundamental social unit. I challenge the language police to craft a definition of “family” that embodies the very essence of union rather than division! “We are fam-i-ly…”

  • Guglielmokids

    Thanks for the shout out!

    • http://virtualDavis.com virtualDavis

      You bet! BTW, totally digging your new Dr. Seuss post. Must read out loud! So funny… :-)

  • http://www.experiencenottinghamshire.com/family-days-out Junior Williams

    I almost cried after reading this blog. This doesn’t have teary scenes but it reminds me of my past friends which are childfree families and they were still very happy and  contented even though they haven’t have a chance to meet and know their parents. How pitiful and this makes me cry completely. 

    • http://virtualDavis.com virtualDavis

       Sorry about that, Junior. I didn’t intend the post as a tear jerker! Glad you read the post, and glad it dredged up some relevant memories for you. I don’t doubt at all that your childfree friends were still very happy. Many (most?) of us are. Especially when it comes to changing nappies and paying tuition bills! ;-)

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  • http://livingoffscript.com/ Bee

    Great post! Funny enough, friends of ours who do have children addressed as “The MyName-HisName Family” on the greeting card they sent us last year. (I kept my maiden name.) It was really validating. So when the last time I ordered return address labels, you better believe that’s what I had printed on them! Kids or not, my husband and I are still a family, and even our childed friends recognize that.

    • http://virtualdavis.com virtualDavis

      It’s curious how important/powerful/affirming such a subtle reference can be. Note to self: update return address labels! :-) Thanks for sharing your comment, Bree.