Family Does Not Have Just One Definition

by Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
A family of four sitting on a bench and smiling while posing for a selfie. / Shutterstock

My son is looking at the pictures of a book about superheroes in the back seat, and I am driving the long stretch of highway 12 across the southwest edge of Michigan. The road feels as automatic as a well-trod path through the woods, as I have been driving it since I was 16.

I press “seek” on the radio and hear a Sunday morning talk show with two men talking about family. It is clear, very quickly, that they are talking about marriage equality.

“We need to make the family unit more attractive,” one says. “We need families in order to procreate. It’s in the interest of the survival of our species.”

“That’s right,” says the other. “It’s important that we continue to show the country what the ideal family looks like. A traditional marriage.”

“And,” the first one continues, “siblings. My siblings shaped my life, and a child needs siblings.”

I change the station, but their words stick with me.

What is an ideal family? I wonder. These talk show hosts presented the ideal family as one with a mother and a father and more than one child. Looking back at my son, I am glad he hasn’t heard this snippet of conversation. I don’t want someone on the radio to define family for him.

I think about the friend I am going to meet, with her husband and eight children. Mother, father, siblings — check. And yet, some might say that she has too many children. Some have questioned her decision to homeschool her children. Some have told her that she should stop having children. These children of hers are some of the most loving, helpful, intelligent children I know. But for many, her family is not the ideal— they might think it is too large, too homeschooled, too Catholic.

Then I think of another friend who has been engaged but never married, but she wanted with all of her heart to be a mother. So she adopted a baby girl. I have never seen her face light up with such happiness as it does in the photos of her with her little girl. She is radiating joy. My friend is white, and her baby is black. She, perhaps, would not be considered the ideal family either — a single mother raising a child in an interracial family.

Another friend is gay. She and her partner of many, many years are raising twins in a loving, comfortable, educated household with two mothers. Mothers — check. Siblings — check. Too many people want to tell them that they are not the ideal family because they are not straight. These kind, loving, and generous women are told that they are offensive, disgusting, disgraceful.

My best friend from college is married without children. She and her spouse decided to adopt two dogs they love with all of their hearts, and they are happy, fulfilled, and enjoying their lives to the fullest. According to some, they shouldn’t have bothered getting married, because they’re not procreating.

And there is also me. I went through a divorce after years in an unhealthy relationship. Remarrying at 34, my second husband and I had the child we always wanted when I was 38, and then decided that one pregnancy was enough for me after complications both during and after his birth. Mother, father — check. Siblings— none. Divorce — black mark. I guess we’re not the ideal family, either.

It is talk show hosts like the two men I heard who are spreading the message that anything different from what they consider ideal is not good enough. It is subtly insidious, too many people listen and think, Maybe they’re right. Then they start to think, Maybe I should also work toward the invalidation of families that are not “traditional.”

Even the definition of the traditional family is outdated: In the 1950s, the men worked, the women stayed home, and TV shows portrayed families as homogenous versions of Leave It to Beaver. Today, some men stay home with the kids, some women work, and some families are blended in various ways. I feel certain that no blueprint exists for an ideal person or an ideal family. There is no “ideal family.”

Family can be inherited or chosen. Family means fellowship. A group of people with common ideas. Friendship. Family does not have just one definition.

Merriam-Webster says the definition of “ideal” is “exactly right for a particular purpose, situation, or person.” With that in mind, ideal can mean many things. For me, ideal is my little family of three. But most of all, ideal is fluid. Ideal is in the moment. Ideal is what you make it.

Ideally, a family has love.

Ideally, a family has respect.

Ideally, a family has happiness.

A family is not about the way it looks or a specific A-B-C formula. There is not only one religion in our country. There is not only one color. And there is not only one kind of family.