I have no family. Forget that I see my parents often, that I live with my wife (and our cat), and that I talk with and see a few of my cousins on a semi-regular basis. The message I constantly get from society is that I haven’t started building my family because I don’t have children.
I would like to preface the rest of this with the fact that I have started writing something on this no less than three times. The first time it was just an angry rant. The second was a clinical breakdown of language. Hopefully this time will strike a better balance. But it’s a difficult subject because the message about children equaling family is both so loudly touted and yet also so unspoken. If my emotions get the better of me, please bear with me while I work through the frustration.
I suppose I should start with who exactly is telling my that I have no family. To say everyone is very nearly true. A “standard” family is so widely touted as a nuclear family that saying family is usually a stand-in for “parents and children”. Sometimes it even goes so far as to mean children almost exclusively. A family film now means a movie that kids can watch. Family friendly television programming is programming geared toward children, not entire families. At New York City Comic Con this year, there was more “family programming” than ever before, and it was exclusively children’s events. Kid’s costume parades, drawing programs for kids, and things of that sort all fell under the banner of “family” when really it was exclusively for children. I should probably amend my statement that family has come to denote a nuclear family. Often times it denotes children, with parents allowed to sometimes tag along.
Who else is telling my wife and I that we’re not a family? Surprisingly, a lot of people we meet. “So when are you going to start a family” is still a common question posed to us when it’s revealed that we don’t have children. Even when phrased as “so when are you going to start having children” falls into this presumption, with the core idea that finding your partner is actually a step toward making a baby. I always found it odd that getting married was supposedly this step toward making an as of yet unknown third party to complete the family unit. That a family wasn’t complete until you meet someone you want to partner with and then add a stranger to reach the pinnacle of what a family should be. That the partner is a steping stone along the path to the real goal, which is a third party. I’m not sure whether that’s more insulting to the partner or the potential child. It’s either turning the partner into a commodity to reach an end result, or it turns the potential child into a product to be created to unlock an achievement. Either way, the assumption is that there’s a family unit of at least three, usually four, waiting to be assembled and the people that come along are the pieces that fit into the board.
If these questions are posed by people we’ve just met, or casual acquaintances, and even coworkers, I would understand to an extent. While a childfree marriage shouldn’t be this strange concept, it is in the minority. The majority of marriages do involve children so while it’s not a fair assumption to make, it is a currently understandable one. But the idea that a family is this standard set to be filled (or fulfilled) is a tempting one. Simple definitions are enticing because they are comforting. We’ve had close friends, well aware of our childfreedom, who have fallen into this. One of our friends had previously commiserated with us, as an ally, about the narrow definition of family used by the general public. Yet after she became pregnant she herself told us that she was “starting a family”. My immediate thought was how had she regarded her husband up until this point? But it also hurt that her definition of family went from an inclusive one to an exclusive. What had previously been a definition of family had suddenly become the definition, once it became her definition. I completely understand that this regression wasn’t a slight against us. She still acknowledges that we’re a complete unit, just the two of us, and hopefully still considers us a family. But it is a bit hurtful that as soon as she’s changed her family to a different structure she essentially moved on. When she was part of a two person family she shared our investment in taking the term back, but once it didn’t apply to her she essentially moved on.
That exclusion is another sticking point on the term family. For every instance when family is used to label a nuclear familial unit, it is also withheld from my wife and I. When we’re spoken of we are always a couple, while our childed friends are a family. These sort of microaggressions take their toll over time, and really do hurt. Once again, this comes with the caveat that it’s understandable to an extent to people who do not know we’re childfree, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to affect the couple/family usage. And it’s not that we always want to be referred to as a family. That would get awkward, conversationally. The problem is we’re never referred to as a family, and implicitly are never seen as a family. That exclusion by language is symptomatic of how childfree people are generally seen. We’re often told that we’re incapable of being families. The current pope, who everyone seems to be having a love affair with, has told the public that people who aren’t having children are just selfish. This narrow-minded lack of understanding and empathy is far more commonplace than you might think, if you’re not aware of this sort of treatment.
Most people aren’t aware, though. Most people can see family and go their entire lives assuming it means two parents and children. Some people even switch over to this after they have kids. But that leaves a lot of people out. It means anyone childfree can never have a family. It means anyone who has built their family out of friends doesn’t count. It means that adoption is an alternative, rather than an equally valid, route to becoming a family. It means that until my wife and I validate our marriage with a third party, we don’t count. And that’s bullshit. We’re not waiting to start a family. We are a family. Avengers assembled. We’re not waiting. We’re not trying. We’re already there. And yet we live with this exclusion and frustration. And it can hurt, because sometimes it feels like we’re standing at a finish line, waiting to welcome people to “family”, only to be told that they don’t believe we’ve even started on the path.