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.
First, it limits what a family can be, and it almost always means heterosexual, monogamous, cis partners with children. It cuts out any other family structure, even those that may include children. Generally the implication is that if you are not biologically related to the children, you don’t have a family. Adoption is placed on a lower tier, poly families make NO SENSE AT ALL, and GLBT families are utterly excluded (despite the fact that they can and do have kids).
But what really rubs me the wrong way about this is the idea that children are what make a family. 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 (I am not referring to abusive structures here, but rather just different ways of setting up healthy relationships). 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?
This devaluing of adult to adult relationships has some serious consequences. It means that adults are pressured not to take time to connect with their friends, their siblings, their spouse or partners, or their mentors. 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 need health care. They don’t have people who can talk to them and support their emotional and mental needs. It means we have adults who don’t learn how to do the appropriate self-care of having a support network and taking time to be with other adults.
It also devalues the lives, accomplishments, and relationships of those who can’t or choose not to have children. 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). 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”.
It also means that children who have abusive or cruel parents are pressured to continue to interact with them, honor them, and respect them simply because of biology. It artificially divides relationships into “important, family” and “not important, other” through biology and the parent/child relationship.
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.