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What is a Family?

By Robin Aronson |

Do families look like this?

So what is a family? Does it have kids? Married partners? Same sex partners?

According to the new Time/Pew poll, the country’s definition of family is changing. Last week, Sierra wrote about how the poll found most people still think kids are best served by growing up in a house with married parents, even if many children aren’t being raised that way.

Similarly when it comes to defining “family” it seems we as a culture are welcoming in an era of mix and match. Or, as I like to think of it, “If it feels like family, who am I to say it isn’t?” And there are a lot of family arrangements to consider. To get at what Americans think about when they think about a family, Pew asked about 7 different living arrangements:

1) Married with children: 99% said this is a family; 1 % said it isn’t

2) Married without children: 88% said this is a family; 10% said it isn’t

3) Single parents with children: 86% said this is a family; 12% said it isn’t

4) Unmarried couples with children: 80% said this is a family; 18% said it isn’t

5) Same sex couples with children: 63% said this is a family; 34% said it isn’t

6) Same sex couples without children: 45% said this is a family; 52% said it isn’t

7) Unmarried couples without children: 43% said this is a family; 54% said it isn’t

Not surprisingly, most people think married with children makes you a family. It’s also not a surprise that how people responded depended on their age.

Eighteen-29 year-olds were more likely to think that same sex couples without kids were a family (51% did) than those over 65 (just 30%).  Yet the younger cohort were still less like to consider an unmarried heterosexual couple without kids as family (47% did). Considering all the chin music sung over gay marriage and how it threatens straight marriage (something I’ve never understood), it’s interesting that for over half of the youngest group surveyed — 51 % — a gay couple without kids makes a family.  As my husband loves to remind me, in electoral politics, 55% is a landslide.  Fifty-one percent is close, but still moving in a clear direction toward acceptance.

Three years after we started trying to have kids, a doctor said to my husband and me something about how we were looking to expand the family we had. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought of my husband and I as a family.  We were a married couple who wanted kids.  We had decided that for us, kids – biological or adopted — would complete our family. We might have decided differently.  We might have decided, as some friends have, that our family would be us without kids. When it came to family matters, just had to figure out for ourselves what our family would look like.

Looking at these numbers, there’s the strength of traditional family markers — marriage, children — but there’s also  a very wide range of acceptance of and respect for the variety of family structures that people decide to adopt.  Outsiders looking in can say, “Gee that looks like a family to me.”   Ultimately, whether or not a family feels like a family is up to its members to decide.

What do you think makes a family?

photo credit: David Ball

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About Robin Aronson

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Robin Aronson

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0 thoughts on “What is a Family?

  1. Sarah says:

    It seems like family should have some sort of legal (or quasi-legal) reasoning behind it: unmarried, no kids – not a family as there are no legal binds. Married = family (including all marriages, even when not legally recognized ie same-sex marriages / civil unions). unmarried, but with kids – the kids provide a legal binding between the two adults – so they are also a family.

    If there is no “legal” bond between two people, then there is nothing holding them together that makes it any different than just dating. (Again – to clarify legal – I recognize that same-sex marriage is not legally recognized everywhere, but for the sake of my argument I’m assuming that it is – hence the quotes around “legal”)

  2. Robin Aronson says:

    It’s true that there seems to be some kind of public statement people want to see for calling a family a family – vows, kids, or some external marker. Maybe people are more open to calling gay couples without kids a family because there are major barriers to both marriage and kids for them, unlike straight couples. Interesting.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Family= the people who love you

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