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Single, No Children: Who's Your Family?

Do we all have families?

Recently, I was asked to write a chapter about family in the lives of people who are single and have no children. The outline was due today. The chapter is for the second edition of an academic volume, the Handbook of Family Communication. The first edition did not address this topic, so I am delighted that this one will do so.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't post my preview of such a chapter, because it is not written in my usual blog style. But in response to my last post about the meaning of 'relationship,' there were so many thoughtful comments, often relevant to the topic of family, that I decided to share my chapter preview with you here. These are just my first thoughts. I hope to develop the chapter much more fully over the summer. (It is due in September.) So post any comments now, or send them to me, but even if you think of something several months from now, send that to me, too—I might still be able to address your point.

Before you read any further, here's what I'd suggest: Think about the question, what is the place of family in the lives of people who are single and have no children? After you've come up with your own thoughts about the matter, then take a look at what I wrote. If I didn't think of what you did, please let me know!


I. Families of Origin in the Lives of Single Adults with No Children

II. Beyond Families of Origin: Who's Your Family?

A. Public Families

B. Private Families

III. Created Kinship and Personal Communities

IV. What's Special About the Personal Communities of Singles without Children?

A. Should We Use the Language of Kinship to Describe People Who Are Not Kin?

B. What Are Personal Communities For and What Are Their Special Strengths?

C. What Are the Special Vulnerabilities of Singles Who Have No Children?

V. Conclusion and a Look Toward the Future


Single, No Children: Who's Your Family?

Now that Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, and as women continue to have fewer children than they did in the past (or none at all), the question of the place of family in the lives of singles without children becomes increasingly important.

Do single people without children even have families? Many assume they do not. I'll consider different concepts of family, and evaluate the place of each in the lives of singles without children.

Families of Origin in the Lives of Single Adults with No Children

Of course, single adults have families of origin. What do we know about single people's interactions with their families of origin across the course of their adult lives? Here I'll review the research (such as that by Ingrid Connidis) on singles' contacts and communication with their siblings and parents (and other categories such as step-parents and step-siblings, if I can find relevant research), and how that changes with age and with life events. My focus in this section will be on communication during ordinary times. Contact and caregiving under conditions of dependency (for example, when parents become frail) will be reviewed in the section under public families.

Beyond Families of Origin: Who's Your Family?

I'll discuss family in the lives of singles from the perspective of Andrew Cherlin's distinction between public and private families.

Public Families

Cherlin's definition of public families (from the 3rd edition of his textbook) is: "One adult, or two adults who are related by marriage, partnership, or shared parenthood, who is/are taking care of dependents, and the dependents themselves." Dependents include "children, the chronically ill, and the frail elderly."

Cherlin includes an important note about public families: "The family members usually reside in the same household, but that is not essential." The implication is that even singles who live on their own can have public families.

So the key question becomes, to what extent are singles involved in the care of dependents? I'll review research showing that singles are often expected to take on the responsibility of caring for aging or ill parents. I'll also describe results from the National Survey of Families and Households (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2008, Journal of Marriage and Family), addressing contact and communication with parents, more broadly construed (not just with frail parents). The authors found that, compared to the divorced and always-single, "the married are less likely to live with parents, stay in touch, and give or receive emotional, financial, and practical help. These differences hold even when we control for structural characteristics, including time demands, needs and resources, and demographic and extended family characteristics."

In The Widening Gap, Jody Heymann reported the results of a nationally representative sample of adults who kept a daily diary for a week of their experiences as workers and caregivers. On the key measures of cutting back on paid employment in order to care for others, she found that adults with no children took cutbacks for children such as nieces and nephews. In fact, they were just as likely to do so as were adults with their own children under 18. They were more than three times as likely to take time off from work to care for parents. With regard to cutting back to care for adults who were not their parents, 46% of adults without children did so, compared to just 13% of adults with minor children. (I wrote about the long-term care of one friend by another here.)

Private Families

Cherlin's definition of private families is: "two or more individuals who maintain an intimate relationship that they expect will last indefinitely—or in the case of a parent and child, until the child reaches adulthood—and who live in the same household and pool their income and household labor."

By this definition of private families, at least two people need to live in the same household in order to qualify. So I'll review the latest Census data on the living arrangements of people who are single. Only a minority of single people live on their own. Others live with children, family, friends, or various combinations. There are some high profile examples I'll mention here, such as the two sisters from Canada, single all their lives, who lived together for decades, expected to live together for the rest of their lives, and were interdependent in all the ways that married couples are, except for the sex. The siblings petitioned for the same protections and benefits under the law that married couples receive. Their case made it all the way through the court system, and garnered much attention, only to be turned down at the highest level. It is cited frequently in law review articles and by advocacy groups.

In this section, I will also question whether sharing a residence should still be a criterion for qualifying as a private family. I'll describe recent trends, such as "living apart together," that suggest otherwise.

Created Kinship and Personal Communities

Most relevant to singles without children is the category of family that Cherlin calls "created kinship" and others, such as Kath Weston, describe as "families of choice." Americans probably became most aware of the role of these families of choice in the lives of people in the GLBT community, who have typically been excluded from marriage and sometimes ostracized by some members of their biological family. They create kinship from personal communities of people such as friends, partners, and kin who are still important to them. These are the people with whom they maintain contact, give and receive help, and celebrate holidays and other special occasions.

The significance of families of choice has been documented in poor communities, too. Created families have also been acknowledged as important among members of step-families and blended families, who may be especially selective about whom they regard as kin.

Recently, there is a growing recognition of the deepening role of these personal communities in the lives of single people who may or may not be part of the GLBT community, and, for that matter, in many other people's lives as well. Spencer and Pahl have written about today's "hidden solidarities"—the friendships and personal communities at the center of so many of our lives. Social network scholars, such as Barry Wellman, have described contemporary interconnections as "networked individualism." We are each at the center of a personal network that is uniquely our own. We create networks that differ with regard to the relative number of family, friends, and others who are included, the closeness of those people to us, and their interconnectedness with each other.

The advent of the internet era has made it increasingly possible to stay in touch with many people who are not geographically (or emotionally) close, and who, in earlier times, may have drifted out of our lives. Now we can relocate our childhood playmates from the neighborhood, and reclaim our friends from high school. The decreasing size of contemporary families makes this potential for staying in touch with friends all the more appealing and important. Even though the rate of geographical mobility has declined some in recent years, it is still fairly high, and that, too, magnifies the importance of friends in our lives.

Single people—especially those who do not have children—are often caricatured as people who "don't have anyone," "don't have a life," and who are putting communities and societies at risk for growing isolation. The data suggest something entirely different. The results of two national surveys have shown that people who have always been single are more likely to support, advise, contact, and visit their parents and siblings than are previously married or currently married adults. They are also more likely to encourage, help, and socialize with friends and neighbors.

Research from Great Britain comes to the same conclusion. For example, Sasha Roseneil and Shelley Budgeon have been intensively studying 53 people from three different kinds of places (conventional small town, unconventional small town, multi-ethnic inner city) who all have one thing in common: They do not live with a partner. The authors found that "far from being socially isolated, solitary individuals who flit from one unfulfilling relationship to another, most of the people we interviewed were enmeshed in complex networks of intimacy and care, and had strong commitments and connections to others ... very few showed any yearning to be part of a conventional couple or family. Of those with partners, almost all had chosen not to live together."

Some of the research on aging has focused on the lives of women who were single all their lives and had no children. (Unfortunately, the relevant research on single men is more scarce.) The results of studies from several different countries would prove surprising to those who believe the stereotypes of old, lonely spinsters: No other group is less lonely than they are.

What's Special About the Personal Communities of Singles without Children?

Should We Use the Language of Kinship to Describe People Who Are Not Kin?

In this section, I will argue that even the closest of friends are not the same as couples minus the sex. Friends differ in important ways from conjugal couples and from kin. The special characteristics of friendships are important to the roles they play in the lives of people who are single.

A growing body of research shows that our interactions with our friends vary from those with other categories of people, such as sexual partners, kin, or acquaintances. Specific differences include the topics we discuss, the feelings we experience and disclose, the impression management we do on behalf of others, and the sense of confidence (or threat) that different categories of people engender in us.

What Are Personal Communities For and What Are Their Special Strengths?

Our own personal communities—typically including family members, friends, and other ties as well—are important to our health, happiness, feelings of belonging, and sense of identity. They connect us to a larger and more diverse society, and enable social and political action. Diverse personal communities—those that include, for example, more than just a spouse, and make room even for what Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman call "consequential strangers"—are good for our personal well-being, for business, for our communities, and for getting things done. Personal communities also come with their own special demands and risks, and I'll review those, too.

What Are the Special Vulnerabilities of Singles Who Have No Children?

Because single people—perhaps especially single women—may be less inclined to invest all of their emotional and interpersonal capital into just one person, or a small nuclear family, they have the potential to create especially strong personal communities, with layers of connections rather than just a small inner circle. (Of course, not all singles do so, just as not all couples practice intensive coupling.)

In this section, I'll describe the special vulnerabilities of single people without children. For example, they have less access to health insurance and to Social Security benefits. They cannot take time from work, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, to care for a close friend, sibling, or any other peer, nor can any such person take time under the Act to care for the single persons who need help. Certain social conventions render singles without children more vulnerable, too.

Conclusion and a Look Toward the Future


OK, readers, please let me know what I missed or misstated. Or share your own personal experiences. Thanks for thinking about this.

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