Monday, December 08, 2008

The Perfect Family

What is the perfect family unit? Western culture has firmly embraced the notion of the one-man-one-woman-plus-children as the ideal family, the one to which we should all aspire. Is it? Is that the family you grew up in, the family you live in now? Is it the family of your friends, neighbors, relations?

In "The Perfect Family is a Myth", Cornell University anthropologist Meredeth F. Small suggests that our narrow definition of family is not universal nor is it historically true. She makes the point that, even in a Western culture that idealizes one family model, families that actually conform to the model are rare.

How do you define "family?" Is there an ideal family unit? Does your family fit that ideal?

Among my own family and our circle of husband and I have children from previous marriages, one of whom lives with us, the other two with their mother. Among our friends and relatives are single parents, childless single women and men, married and unmarried committed couples of various gender pairings, with and without children, and a triad or two. Each of their families are filled with love, laughter, conflict, challenges, sadness, support, and every other aspect of family life. We also refer to our spiritual group as family and share enormous love and support within that group. My husband and I have had many conversations about the concept of line and group marriages. We both embrace, at least on a philosophical level, an idea of family beyond the limited Western definition, yet even we struggle at times with long-held beliefs and norms.

What about you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on what makes a family. The definition of family in our society is changing whether we talk about it or not. Dialog gives us an opportunity to participate in the change, not sit dazed and confused on the sidelines watching the landscape shift. This kind of social evolution can be a long, bumpy ride. I don't know about you, but on a trip like that, I like to drive.


  1. Maybe it's just me and my friends, but it's always more of a family feel to the group than anything else. There's love and support lurking in this extended-by-choice family, though none of us have thrown a child into the mix yet.

    I was about to talk about my blood-related family when I paused at the distinction I made automatically. Blood-related versus... chosen family, I guess. Because I love my chosen family as much as my blood-related one.

  2. Greetings, Alii, and thanks for singing along.

    Your comment echoes what I hear many people say about chosen family versus blood family...that there is little distinction in the love and commitment associated, with or without biological ties.

    I also noticed you list Stranger in a Strange Land as a favorite book. Robert Heinlein's views on family fell decidedly outside the typical American ideal. His work has sparked many a conversation and a following, and his line family structure is a topic of discussion frequently with my husband. In an increasingly unstable economy and with the demands inherent in our culture, extending the family unit makes a lot of sense in some ways.

  3. Thank you for the greeting!

    Heinlein's one of the authors who've I read perhaps one or two of his books and taken away a sense of a man I don't necessarily like, but feel he has some amazingly valuable reflections on society. I haven't read that particular book too recently, but I remember taking away a sense of inclusiveness with the built-family. A core of vibrant colors while the world outside glittered in the cold light of stereotypical science-fiction future.

    I'm not sure, however, precisely what you mean by a line family structure?

  4. Heinlein's line marriage was interesting. A couple married and then additional people were added so the marriage continued even after the death of the original couple. You can Google "line marriage" and find some descriptions. I'm not necessarily promoting the concept...but it does offer some food for thought.

  5. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Good distinction Alii makes about blood-related family vs. chosen family. I call you Momma and that is becuase you fill that role for me, much more than my blood-related mother does. I love her, but she and I aren't close. We don't have the same mindset, interest, etc. I wouldn't go to her with a problem, or for support when I need it. I haven't given the changing family concept much thought till your post, but you're exactly right: it's definately changing!! I never could relate to the idea that people should give and receive unconditional love for blood family for no other reason than that they're blood. I also don't buy the concept that blood relatives share a special bond, becasue they have the same progenitor. The relationship's the key, not the "blood!" ~zephyr

  6. @Zephyr I don't know if I buy the special-bond thing either. But even though my blood-family is a little silly, but they're still people I can see after years apart and give them a huge hug and know that it'll be welcome.

    @Heartsong Aaah. That makes sense. My GoogleFu apparently fails. I was drawing a blank. Anyhow, I'm just a little skeptical about a marriage continuing after the death of the original couple mostly because my understanding of interpersonal relationships (not even romantic ones) is that all of them have a keystone. If the keystone was one of the original couple, I don't see the marriage persisting. Well, in the real world, at least. *grins*


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