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Alternative family structures

So when I was growing up, I had an understanding: one would grow up, fall in love with someone of the opposite sex, marry him/her, have kids, and be happy. As I got older, this understanding was expanded to include the possibility of falling in love with someone of the same sex. These, as I understood it, were my options, along with the ever-popular dying alone and childless (it would’ve been childless for me, I’m not commenting on anybody else’s child-having preferences). The older I got, and the lesser my aptitude for romantic relationships was revealed to be, the more convinced I became that dying alone was my doom.

That’s actually not what has happened (yet, anyway). I have grown up, but I never fell in love with anybody, at least not in a way that stuck, and as yet I have not married (it seems less and less likely to happen, though I won’t rule it out). I live with my best friend and her husband and their child, my godson. I am pregnant with, I’ve just found out, a baby boy (if the kid is cis) and my best friend is due to deliver my wonderful goddaughter any minute now, actually. And we are a family.

Since this seems to confuse or arouse the interest of a good many people, let me just make it clear: I am not sleeping with anybody in my family constellation. That’s not the kind of relationship I’ve built my life around. This feels right to me, as I’ve always had very enduring, very intense best friendships, lasting for years. Of the best friends I’ve had since turning 13, one friendship ended when my friend’s parents very deliberately separated us by moving her out of state (they thought we were gay; we’re friends again now); one ended when we did drift apart after several years; one ended when my best friend died; and one is my best friend now. That’s not a bad track record. That’s not a bad kind of relationship to build a life or a family on. My sexual/romantic relationships though–one, when I was in my early twenties, lasted a year and a half. That’s the best I’ve ever done. More usually, they last 3-6 months and are long distance and fraught with anxiety and insecurity. That’s no way to raise a child. It’s really no way to be happy, either.

I feel like I’ve hit the family jackpot. I can be happy with the people I love best in the world, who love me best. We take care of each other. And the pressure is off, I can date or not date, and it has absolutely zero effect on my long-term family plans. I can have the best of both worlds–a loving, reliable family, and I can still sleep with cute, feckless young men on the side, if the opportunity arises.

I know another family trio, a polyamorous family, who are equally happy. And of course, middle-class white people are quite late to the party when it comes to non-nuclear family structures. The essential role of extended family in African-American communities, including family who are not blood kin, such as othermothers, is well documented. I first ran across the concept of othermothers in the work of Patricia Hill Collins, I believe Black Feminist Thought. And numerous cultures, including Native American ones, build family with and around people and relatives white people would term “extended” family.

These families are real and effective in doing all that families do–caring for each other, supporting each other, fighting with each other, raising children if children there be. But, like same-sex marriage in most of the US until the past couple years, they have no legal protections. People with resources and knowledge and money can see a lawyer and draw up a number of documents, none of which are iron-clad–co-parenting agreements, wills, stand-by guardianships, health-care proxies. But there is no recognized way to make somebody part of your family unless you marry them or adopt them. Even if you are family, there is no way for say, a sister and brother to legally protect a primary family they choose to make together. Why? We do we base our standard of family on sexual relationships between two people not otherwise related? Yes, reworking our definition of family would require reworking lots of things–how we apportion health insurance, for instance. But so what? The way we apportion health insurance in this country is pretty stupid anyway. What makes sexual/romantic relationships so special that they deserve recognition available to no other kinds of relationships? Or, to put it another way, what makes my decade-long bond with my best friend so much less deserving? If love, as we have said, makes a family, why are we making invidious distinctions among types of love and family bonds?

10 thoughts on Alternative family structures

  1. I do think there needs to be far more flexibility in individuals ability to control insurance. And I think everyone should be able to list a next of kin. I personally always thought we need better options for adolescents in foster care. There should be sibling adoption. Historically, aren’t there plenty of examples of sworn sisterhood and brotherhood. Currently, Nuns and monks form households based on chosen sibling relationships. There must be some sort of legal precedent. And from your description it seems like your best friendships are similar to sworn sibling like relationships.

  2. Last year, one of my lecturers strongly recommended reading Seeing like a feminist. One particular section made a huge impression on me, was about the reading about the family structure of the Indian Nair people, at least before British colonial powers went to great lengths to stamp out what they saw as an incredibly wrong way of life.

    Households were formed along matrilineal lines, with all the offspring of one woman living together as a unit (sons, daughters, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren), until the unit became unweildly and split, again along matrilineal lines. (Note however, that the oldest man was in charge, boo). While men and women married, they did not live together, rather continuing to live with their respective family units, and the husband instead gaining overnight visiting privileges with his wife. Divorce was relatively common, and multiple relationships may or may not have been accepted, depending on which source you read. Such a family structure had the result that men did not invest in their biological offspring (who may or may not have been “theirs” anyway), and instead served as providers and caregivers to their sisters’ children. “Family is my sisters and my sisters’ children”.

    While the system as it was practiced definitely had problems, and I only have a very superficial understanding of it, I couldn’t help thinking it provided an attractive alternative. Certainly in simpler form, the idea of raising a child/children together with my brother has a lot of appeal to me. However, it would be very difficult for sibling households to coexist in a Western context, at least as far as longer term romantic relationships are concerned.

      1. Well, nor mine, heavens forfend. But not any of the dudes or ladies I’ve dated, either, which is why I think we need more flexibility!

        1. What if we split the social and legal definitions of legally recognized social relationships like father, mother, grandmother, spouse, child, etc. and created a legal process for contracting these relationships between two people? Then existing legal language could apply but volitional flexibility would be introduced into the social system of classification.

          The question would be how to regulate it to keep things meaningful and still be flexible!

  3. Asia, yes to all. Insurance regs would be wonderful, and could reduce premiums or forestall increases from fraud. Due to a birth “defect” of appearance, various family members have insured my life heavily over the years hoping that I’ll check out, and a couple have tried to rush that. No doubt, this is happening to others. For this and other reasons-collaborating with abusers, financial fraud, gender or other bigotries – it would be nice to have a legal process to fire an entire toxic family. (Big grin.)
    Allowing obsolete religious-based civic structures to define our relationships makes no sense whatever in an era when we can create them, delineate them on social media instead of church banns or the Sunday social sections of print media, and blaze a trail instead of following old ones.

    1. Ooh, I hadn’t even thought of that, but yes, some way to sever family/relational ties with hostile and abusive people would be wonderful.

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