Childless couples and the definition of family.
Last Christmas day, my husband Duncan and I stayed home, just the two of us, opening presents, overeating, napping. By contrast, my friend Melanie spent the day with her brother and his new wife. Also present were his new wife's siblings, their spouses and children (including those from previous relationships), her divorced parents, their new spouses and children, and a random grandparent or two. Although at this point I couldn't quite figure out who belonged with whom, it was clear that Melanie was describing an idyllic holiday scene: good music, great food, and lots of laughter.
Everyone exchanged presents—and not just those related by blood, or even marriage. Somehow, this family had decided they all belonged to each other. I wondered how. Later the same week, I ran into my friend Will. The holidays had been rough—he was going through a dreadful divorce—but he and his soon-to-be ex-wife had made a commitment to spend important occasions together. So, as planned, he arrived at her house on Christmas morning to open presents with their children.
"Didn't that feel weird?" I asked. It did, he admitted, but his ex had grown up this way—with her divorced parents getting together with their children on birthdays and Christmas, eventually bringing new spouses, new children, and new in-laws. I asked him where he thought his family began and ended now. "Not sure," he said.
As more and more people find themselves in "nontraditional" relationships—that is, any setup other than a young, heterosexual couple marrying in order to have children—the definition of family becomes increasingly unclear. Most define the notion as relatives first, children second, and shared values a distant third. But for the people I know, it's not that simple. In a time when divorce, adoption, and same-sex unions have become the norm, many of us will by necessity be forced to find a way to make each other feel like we belong to each other. But as I've learned, it's possible. My husband Duncan and I are typical of today's complex, non-traditional marriages. I'm his second wife, and stepmother to his son; we have no children of our own. I grew up Jewish, he Episcopalian. I am a longtime, committed Buddhist practitioner; he's an atheist.
Not too long ago, I became upset when Duncan wanted to loan his ex-wife money. We had argued about this subject plenty of times in the past, often ending with me crying and being talked into going along anyway. But this time was different. "Please," I said. "I really need us to not do this." He ignored me. And, with one rip from the checkbook, he had lost my trust. Who was this man? Clearly, I couldn't count on him to put me first. And we had no children, no shared religion, no particular ideas about how we might save the world together. Just because I had married him, was he my family?
A few days later, Duncan and I were invited to spend the weekend in Pennsylvania with my parents, my siblings, and the rest of our extended family. On Sunday, my sister called everyone of my generation together to suggest that the time had come for us to chip in and begin helping some of our relatives with their financial obligations—relatives who had helped us considerably over many years. "Yes," I said. "Of course," said Duncan. "No," said my cousin. I felt dazed. I turned to Duncan, hugged him, and thanked him profusely for his unquestioning willingness to open his heart and resources to my family. I felt so loving toward him, so grateful and trusting.
On the drive home, the irony struck me: My husband was willing to step up to the plate on behalf of people who were not related to him by blood; my cousin, their "true" relative, would not. I asked Duncan if he thought we were a family. "We sleep together every night," he said simply. "We eat meals together, pay bills together, buy furniture together. When we say we're going home, we go to the same place." For him, the answer was self-evident. I would never have defined family this way; for me, the notion was more about the strength of the emotional bond between two people. Intrigued, I began asking friends who were partnered but childless how they felt. Some had chosen not to have kids, some were in second marriages where one spouse already had children, others were young couples who wanted to get pregnant, but couldn't. The question cut deep for all of them.
My friend Lydia, who had spent the last 14 months trying to conceive, was surprised when she discussed the issue with her husband. He confessed that marrying and moving in together were a run-up to the final step—having children—that in turn would make them a real family. Lydia, on the other hand, felt they were already a family, and had been from the day they fell in love. For her, the power of this connection superseded traditional definitions. "I didn't realize that to him, family had scale," she told me.
Other couples mentioned how important it was to care for someone together. "The fact that I helped raise his children has created a deep bond," my friend Patricia said. "And it may sound silly, but caring for our dog and working in our garden together is another source of joy and connection for us." My friends Dave and Suzanne are both Buddhists. Their sense of family comes from sharing a spiritual path. "It's tribal," Dave says. "We're part of the same clan, share the same views about life and death, help each other struggle with all the big issues." The rhythms of their life reflect their core beliefs. What could be more familial?
Pets and spiritual practices aside, some couples just know they are a family, and have no wish or need for an explanation. My friend Beth says, "I have no idea what makes us a family. But when Rob and I are lying in bed together watching TV and our cat jumps up and falls asleep between us—I melt and think, ‘Ah, I'm home.'" Richard Borofsky, EdD, a longtime couples' therapist and founder (with his wife, Antra) of The Center for the Study of Relationship in Cambridge, Mass., agrees that shared interests and deep emotional bonds are helpful. But he also points to the importance of community. "For many childless couples, gay or straight," he says, "their friends are their family." But, he adds, "family is simply created over time, organically. When you've moved through enough ups and downs together, celebrated gains and mourned losses, a couple becomes a family."
On the long drive home from the weekend with my parents, Duncan and I talked about our life, our relationship, and what it meant to both of us. When we arrived at last, we unlocked the front door, and lugged our suitcases upstairs. As he always does, Duncan began unpacking immediately, placing clean clothes back in their drawers, dirty ones in the hamper. As I always do, I plopped my suitcase in a corner, knowing I'd unpack it in a few days when I needed something I'd left in there. But before I set off to go watch TV, I turned and gave Duncan a hug. It lasted a long time; I think we both began to let the tension of the last week fall away. In that embrace, what I felt for him was probably what you would call love. But there was also something beyond definition, and that thing was embracing us both.