"Can we stop referring to having children as 'starting a family'? Couples are a family regardless of whether they have children or not."
This was a comment on a recent article I wrote about the cost of having children keeping women in unhappy jobs and it made me reflect on the way we describe families. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with members of our Money Diaries Facebook group, too.
'Family' is a word that has many definitions but the most common usages are along generational lines. In this context a family is a group of (normally biologically) connected generations, primarily centring on parents and children. In society at large this definition has long been normalised along the lines of the nuclear family – a catchall term coined in the early 20th century to describe the familial ideal of mother, father and biological children (plural).
This definition of family has been useful, particularly politically. As Sarah Jaffe writes in her introduction to Work Won’t Love You Back: "The family itself was and is a social, economic, and political institution. It developed alongside other such institutions – capitalism and the state – and, like them, developed as a mechanism of controlling and directing labor, in this case, the labor of women." The labour in this instance is the labour of love, the act of caring for and sustaining the money-earning labour of the man as well as raising children to repeat the cycle. Reproduction through family lines was necessary across the classes both to produce new workers and bring in more essential income, and to keep wealth and land within the clear boundaries of biological ties.
The necessity of defining family in this way is less acute than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries but echoes of it remain, particularly in the popular, more euphemistic definition of family that many (myself included) have unwittingly used. Family is a surrogate term for having children: bringing in a new generation is 'starting a family'; a focus of feminist liberation is that women shouldn’t have to choose between work and 'family' (aka having children); and questions about whether or not you’re trying to get pregnant are couched in the more indirect phrase: 'When are you starting your family?'
Despite the pervasiveness of the concept of a 'nuclear family', the ways in which families form have always been as much in flux as they are today. Generations of caregiving and caretaking are the defining factors as opposed to biological connection or even the number of parents. And yet the idea of an explicit parent-child dynamic (ideally biological children of cis man and woman) as the epitome of family persists. Your family therefore 'starts' only when you become a parent – not a moment before.
I am a lesbian who is both personally and professionally invested in understanding how families are formed outside of the 'nuclear' dynamic but I’d never considered the implication of the phrase 'starting a family' before. The moment you are encouraged to look at it directly, the implications are obvious, almost jarringly so.
Lara, one of the women who pointed this out to me in our Money Diaries Facebook group and who is childless rather than child-free, tells me: "This terminology contributes to the narrative that we’re incomplete without children and that our family of two is less important than those with children. Once you look for it you start to see how pervasive the language is – politicians love to talk about 'hardworking families' and they always mean people with children." She adds that this rubs her the wrong way as her childlessness is not deliberate. "Involuntary childlessness is an emotive topic anyway and this just compounds the feeling of being 'less than'. I imagine it really pisses child-free people off for similar reasons! I think it’s a very non-inclusive way of asking someone about their home life."
Kelly, another of the women who commented in the group, adds that she used to use the phrase until someone pointed out to her that it implies that families without children are not families. "In the same way that assuming everyone is aspiring to the nuclear family of a husband, wife and 2.5 children, this is outdated and excludes everyone who does not fit that default 'family unit'. I understand that people are not being intentionally hurtful with that comment because it is so ingrained in our society but calling it out is the first step to changing that language and stereotype."
Shifting our wider definition of family is not just about including those who are childfree or prospective parents who sit outside of the heterosexual, cis norm. This is obviously very important, particularly when it comes to the ongoing inequalities in how non-normative families are treated and what treatment they have access to.
More broadly, it enables us to think of family beyond the individual, isolated unit and as part of a growing, interconnected community. That might be chosen family for trans people isolated from their biological relations, single mothers forming a commune or even intergenerational friendships.
The language we use doesn’t define how we live but it does shape how we perceive it. It isn’t malicious or ill-intentioned to think of children as the point at which a 'new' family 'starts' but when you begin to see the patterns in phrases such as this, you begin to recognise how they can subtly warp our expectations of each other. In rejecting them we can make more space for every iteration of family, from childfree to sprawling, chosen and everything in between. This gives legitimacy not to childrearing or parenting above all else but to the support and community that family can and should give, however it is formed.
As Kelly puts it: "My husband and I are a family. My friend and her cat are a family. My uncle who lives on his own has a family who care for him. None of those is missing anything to become a family, they already are one in their own right. If we ever decided to have a child, adopt a child, adopt a pet or welcomed anyone else into our family, we would consider it expanded, not started."