I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting. White, upper-middle-class, staunchly Republican. Parents still married to each other (celebrating 50 years this summer). Dad worked for the same company for 47 years; Mom stayed home to raise three all-American kids. Look at a snapshot of any holiday celebration, and you’ll see us gathered around the dining room table, with flowers from Mom’s garden in the centerpiece, a golden turkey nesting in a great-grandmother’s platter, and everyone dressed with a smile. Picture-perfect.
The flowers, turkey, and smiles are the same in contemporary photos, but we’ve added a few new players. My brother married his college sweetheart and they introduced four beautiful daughters. My sister went off to college and came home a Democrat. Then she went off to graduate school and finally figured out she was a lesbian. A few years later, she joined her partner in a commitment ceremony, and they welcomed two boys with contributions from a sperm donor, a “donor daddy.” I was the lone ranger for many years, the only single person at the table, till I met and married my husband in my mid-40s. He is African-American, and we are childfree.
While growing up and well into adulthood, I never imagined there was any other kind of family for me outside of the traditional model that raised me. I had every expectation that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and create a home and family in her image. I held tightly to that illusion, through many unfulfilling relationships and socially awkward encounters (“Why aren’t you married?” “Don’t you like children?”). I think it’s a miracle that my “right” family was revealed to me and that I am able to embrace it.
I would argue that our society’s definition of a “traditional” family is flawed. Certainly census statistics show that single-parent homes, adults living alone, and mixed-race families are more the norm than marketing directors would have us believe. I look down our street here in San Francisco (and, admittedly, we are a liberal and open community), and I see this reflected back to me through our neighbors’ homes where multiple generations, languages, races, and genders commingle without special notice.
Here in the childfree community, we’re often made to feel that our families are “nontraditional,” which translates to “less than” or “incomplete.” This way of thinking is so judgmental, so hurtful, and so unnecessary. If you’re single, you can create your own family among close and supportive friends. If you’re married or in a committed relationship, you know that it takes only two to make your family. Other people expand their families to include caretaking of nieces and nephews, elderly relatives and friends, or beloved pets.
The “nontraditional” extended family I am part of today is a beautiful thing, defined by love, acceptance, and respect. In my own home, I feel blessed to be one of a family of two, which we augment by sharing our table with friends who have become family. This is my family, this is my new traditional, and I think it’s perfect.
Kathleen Guthrie Woods is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She is working on a memoir about her journey to embracing life without baby.