It’s not uncommon for a young couple to mention that they’re looking to “start a family” or for someone who is looking for a spouse to say that part of what they want is to be able to “have a family”. We all know what people mean when they say this: they mean that they want to have kids. As someone who has no interest whatsoever in having children, this phrase implies many things that seem unhelpful and backwards to me, and honestly I’m really sick of hearing it. Let’s have a chat shall we about why we need to disentangle the concepts of family and children?
Let’s Talk About How This Ranks Families
So let’s start with what people actually mean when they say have a family. There is some deviation from these assumptions, but the general implication is that they want to have biological children in a heterosexual, monogamous, cis partnership. There are a lot of implications that childless families, adopted children, poly families or GLBT families are less important or less normal. And as a euphemism for “having kids”, the phrase “starting a family” implies that a family only happens when kids are involved. That’s really weird.
Intentional or not, this phrasing creates a bar of “real” families vs. those couples who don’t “have a family” yet. Considering the ways that people judge childfree couples already, this is part and parcel of the pile of shit that childfree folks get.
What SHOULD A Family be?
Families are the people who are closest to us, who support us, who care for us, who we include in our most intimate decisions. They are not defined exclusively by blood: you can marry into a family, adopt into a family, or even (if you so choose) include certain friends or partners as part of your family. Each different way that we bring people into our lives in an intimate way is important and valid. Every formation of family improves our lives by giving us a support system and people who care for us. And without these adult, caring, supportive, interdependent relationships, we cannot be healthy people.
So why is it that children are what defines “starting a family”? Didn’t all of us start our families the moment we had an intimate relationship, a close friend, a good relationship with our parents or our siblings, or provided support and care for our extended family? What does it say about how we value adult to adult relationships if a family only counts when we have kids? And how does it impact people to prioritize these adult/kid relationships so highly (for example I’ve heard childfree adults called selfish and self centered exclusively because they don’t want to devote their lives to kids. Apparently you can’t give back to other adults).
Who Does This Hurt?
When you only refer to people with kids as “families”, you devalue the serious, committed, important relationships we have with other adults.Not only is that just shitty in and of itself because it invalidates people’s relationships, it also pushes adults to focus on their kids to the exclusion of other relationships. This is something that is so commonplace it’s written about and joked about across the internet. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that kids are a buttload of work and part of the reason friendships suffer is the very real amount of time that a kid takes. But it’s also the pressure the parents have to prioritize their kids over everything else, and the way that adult friendships are seen as superfluous.
When adults don’t take the time to establish healthy family networks of all types, that means they don’t have support and care when they need it. They don’t have someone they can ask to babysit or help out if they’re called in to work last minute. They don’t have other role models and mentors for their kids. They don’t have people who can support them if they lose a job or go through a breakup. They don’t have people who can talk to them and support their emotional and mental needs. Your kids cannot provide you with healthy emotional support. That has to come from other adults. More and more it’s becoming something we expect from our partners alone.
This means that in one phrase we’re continuing to push the idea of one type of family, prioritize kids over other relationships, and leaving adults feeling like they can’t prioritize their own adult relationships. That’s a lot for one little phrase. And yes, I realize that it’s not all because of this phrase, but the way we use language can both reveal and reify the beliefs and attitudes we have.
But Wait, There’s More
I haven’t even gotten to the part where equating a family with kids is absolute shit to people who are child free.
The implication when someone says “start a family” to mean having a child is that those who don’t have children will never have families. It once again sends the message (especially to women) that their lives will be empty and alone if they don’t have kids. It says that they can’t possibly be getting the same kind of fulfillment and joy out of the relationships that they do have because they don’t “have a family”. Who on earth would want to refrain from having children? They won’t have a family!
All of this plays into the pressure to build your family in a certain way. It plays into the idea that unless you’re married or blood related, your relationship isn’t as important (which disproportionately affects people who are already oppressed, who need more support not less). And this means legal rights, like right of attorney and inheritance. It means that I would not be able to visit the person I’ve lived with for the last 2 years if she were in the hospital simply because she’s “just a friend”.
My relationships and obligations are seen as less important because they are not to a child. That’s ridiculous. I have seen stories of people who are not allowed time off because their coworkers with children need to go trick or treating with their kids or go to conferences. Equating kids with family is what makes it seem reasonable to give parents special treatment and ask childfree adults to work extra or have last pick when it comes to days off, restaurant selection, or all sorts of other things. We do have obligations, they’re just not quite as obvious as a kid.
I Have a Family
This may seem like an unimportant phrase that comes from another time when families were all built a certain way. But the phrase implies that families look one way and there is one time when you begin to build your family. That’s simply not true and the consequences are that people are left more divided and more alone than they need to be.
I’m not playing by those rules anymore. I started a family ages ago. I started when I decided I wanted to put in the work to have a good relationship with my parents. I started when I decided to reach out to my brother. I started when I chose to reach out to new people and tell them that I care for them and wanted them in my life. I have a family. I don’t need to start one.