March 20, 2017

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.

How to Explain your Childfree Choice

"How to explain why you've chosen not to have children", by Scott Meyer

"How to explain why you've chosen not to have children", by Scott Meyer

As we’ve pointed out before society has a deeply engrained bias toward to breeding portion of the population. Biology ensures this bias. In the big picture it makes biological sense. Procreation prevents extinction while advancing evolution.

Nothing new there. Except, I’d like to offer up a warm “Thank you!” to all of the breeders around the world who are saving the human race by breeding so that I can focus on my energies elsewhere. Yes, as is often pointed out to me, if we all stopped having children humanity wouldn’t endure for long. I get it. I agree. And I’m deeply grateful to all of you who’ve opted to perpetuate the human race…

Of course, that isn’t what most DINKs are thinking about when they opt out of the breeder program. I’d venture to guess that most DINKs feel pretty confident that enough babies will continue to be born despite our personal choice. And, yes, their are some childfree folks who genuinely believe their choice should be universalized (Don’t dismiss until you’ve considered this. Still hoping for a thoughtful, articulate post on this topic.), but I’m not one of those folks.

So can we step beyond the bias? Perhaps not.

According to Lilit Marcus childfree women endure a deluge of judgment.

Despite the advancements that women have made in the public and private spheres, our bodies – and the choices we make about them – continue to be a battlefield. (TODAYMoms)

In many respects the 20th century was marked by a leveling of the gender playing field. And yet I am consistently made aware of how much more difficult it is for a woman to explain that she’s opted not to have children. When I express my childfree choice I often get hit with a barrage of questions, but acceptance is rarely hard-won. Men who choose not to breed are given a pass in the way that cowboys weren’t forced to pick the new drapes or iron petticoats. Deep in our cultural DNA we make room for men who break with conjugal and domestic conventions. But women are rarely granted this same freedom.

it shouldn’t be important whether a woman has children or not, but most of our culture doesn’t concur. “You’ll change your mind when you’re (five years older than age I am),”… I tried to imagine the opposite situation  – a woman my age (28), pregnant or with a child, being told that in five years she’d change her mind about wanting to be a mother. Or what about a guy my age being told that his “daddy instinct” would kick in soon and he would start wanting to pop out kids? I’m old enough to vote, to drink alcohol and to die for my country, but I’m still being told – sometimes by my own peers – that I’m not mature enough to decide about my body, my family and my future. (TODAYMoms)

Hats off to Ms. Marcus for saying it like it is! Women have a singularly difficult time explaining their childfree choice as I witness again and again when my bride sidesteps the patronizing, dismissive comments and endeavors to communicate her intelligent, considered choice. This is especially challenging with other women who often seem to consider Susan’s personal choice an affront. Instead of explaining her choice Susan frequently ends up listening to an emotional diatribe about the merits of motherhood.

Is their a sensible way to explain your childfree choice? I continue to believe their is, but the conversation rarely remains sensible for long and too often veers into emotionally charged, defensive territory. Perhaps we need to develop a less antagonistic methodology. And perhaps parents need to asses why they become so sensitive when our childfree choice is personal and doesn’t imply judgement of their own choice.

Do you have a foolproof way to explain your childfree choice?