March 16, 2011
We are family
How do you define family?
A father, a mother and two children? A single mom raising two girls? A divorced mom and a stepfather, two stepkids and a half-sister? Two sisters, one half-sister from the same mother, and a half-brother and half-sister from the same father?
These aren’t different types of families. It’s the same family — mine — at various points in my life. The meaning of family is not static; it’s constantly evolving over the course of our own lives, as well as over the course of human history.
The fact that the term “nuclear family” no longer describes most American families is old news. One study, cited in the Wikipedia entry for nuclear family, found that as of 2000, nuclear families consisting of both biological parents made up only 24 percent of American households. The same study indicated that U.S. households are so diverse, there is no longer a definition for the average family.
I’m sure that doesn’t come as a shock.
In the age of ABC’s Emmy Award-winning “Modern Family,” MTV’s popular “Teen Mom,” tabloid-darling Octomom Nadya Suleman and Angelina Jolie’s mini-U.N. clan, the hodgepodge postmodern family has clearly gained prominence and social acceptance.
But what happens to a word when you keep adding more and more definitions, each one taking you further from the original meaning? Does the word become so vague that it loses its value, or so dense that it no longer has a connotation — like a child mixing paint colors, forming a dull grayish hue?
A father, a mother and two children are a family. We can all agree on that. A married man and woman are a family. Most people, according to the latest studies, will agree with that statement. An unmarried couple cohabitating — a boyfriend and girlfriend — are they a family? Most of us would say they are not. But what if they have a child together?
Let’s take it one step further: A man lives with a woman and her child, but they are not a couple. Does the presence of a child automatically turn a house into a household? Then is a household without any children a family?
These are some of the questions we tackle in this issue of TRIBE. As you will read in our cover stories, each one of the families we profile has had to struggle with the concept of family, and all have had to figure out a way to define themselves — to their community, to their own families and to themselves.
We don’t need sociology books or the results of the U.S. census to tell us what family means to us. It’s a definition that we each form for ourselves and adjust as we move through life. Sometimes it’s a deliberate decision — for instance, choosing not to have children, or choosing to have a child alone — that defines a family. Other times, a family is formed by chance and forces beyond our control. Whatever shape or color that family unit takes, we all seem to thrive on the intimacy, the comfort and the familiarity it affords us.
What does my family look like now?
Husband, wife and child. Oh, and Mom, Abba, stepfather, two sisters, three brothers-in-law, two nephews, half-sister, half-brother, mother-in-law, best friend ...