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How the Pandemic has Altered the Definition of “Family”

The pandemic has loosened family ties and changed who attends holiday events.

Key points

  • Many are choosing to enjoy holidays with their chosen family:  a group created outside of (and often in place of) the family.
  • The structure of the family is undergoing the most rapid change in human history.
  • The family is no longer the exclusive source of emotional and financial support, transmission of values, and spiritual identity.
Anna Guerrero/Pexels
Source: Anna Guerrero/Pexels

Who was at your Fourth of July cookout? Was it your parents, siblings, children, grandchildren? Or was it your chosen guests: friends, neighbors, your pandemic pod?

During the past couple of years, the pandemic has loosened family ties while also turning friends into family. Many people have discovered that “family” can include not only blood relatives, but also the people who choose to support and love you (and you them).

Now, it’s a real option to skip the stressful travel – not to mention the potential drama and political slugfests -- that holiday gatherings may bring. Instead, many choose instead to enjoy holidays with their chosen family: a group created outside of (and often in place of) the family.

“Voluntary kin (chosen family members) can serve as excellent sources of support and fulfill the roles we associate with family,” says Dr. Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab at the University of Washington. “Many people have a difficult time separating the idea of family from biology and law. Yet there is nothing inherent about biology or the law that guarantees a happy or satisfying sibling relationship.”

Journalist Melissa Kirsch, an editor at The New York Times, addressed this topic in a recent newsletter, identifying Pride as not only a celebration of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, but also a tribute to chosen families. “When a family of origin is absent or unsupportive, a chosen family is essential,” she wrote. “And even if your biological family is intact, cultivating close, supportive relationships with neighbors, friends and colleagues can provide welcome kinship, as many of us found during the pandemic. The pandemic pod was a temporary chosen family, born of necessity. People who might otherwise never have fetched groceries for one another or shared strategies for locating toilet paper, let alone discussed issues of life and death, were suddenly one another’s confidantes.”

Relieved of family obligations

Instead of packing four kids into the car and trekking to one or another set of parents at Thanksgiving, last year one family in Boise, Idaho, decided to spend the holiday with friends.

Though this couple had hewn to family tradition even at the height of the pandemic, they told The New York Times that they were glad to avoid the pressures of travel and strained family relations.

"We had such a good time [with friends], and there was zero drama to it and zero obligation, " the wife, a content creator, said. "I think the pandemic shifted something that made us realize if we don't want to spend time with family, we don't have to."

Julie Wittes Schlack told WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, that she was thrilled when the pandemic relieved her of the traditional family Thanksgiving. “I used to spend long weekends inching along clogged highways between Boston and my in-laws’ in New York, desperately wishing I could instead be having anything but turkey at home with my husband and kids. This year my dream is coming true,” she said.

Many respondents I surveyed for my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, spoke of opening their hearts to chosen family:

I’m starting to realize that most of the “sister” relationships that I crave can be met through loving, healthy friendships.

I’ve got a family made up of friends and coworkers. I had to create a whole new family.

“Family” means little to me. What matters is how I’m loved by the people who choose to be in my life.

The diminishing role of the family

Today’s family is no longer the exclusive source of emotional and financial support, transmission of values, and spiritual identity. Even before the pandemic, a profound metamorphosis was transforming the family in the Western world, diminishing its role as a social anchor. Several major sociological and cultural shifts have contributed to this dramatic change in the family structure:

  • Young adults are postponing or repudiating marriage and parenthood, leading to a decline in birth rates.
  • Meanwhile, the number of births outside marriage has increased sharply.
  • Previous generations were “glued” together by lifelong marriages and large families. Currently, the number of single-parent households is growing, a trend that is expected to continue.
  • Today’s adult children, compared with their parents and grandparents, often live farther away from family members.
  • People with more education and higher social standing are likely to be more geographically mobile and less likely to depend financially on family.
  • Higher achievers also tend to have a larger social network and are therefore less reliant on family.

“We’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history,” New York Times columnist David Brooks asserted in “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” a March 2020 article in The Atlantic. He reported that only one-third of Americans now live in two-parent nuclear families. Moreover, the aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents who once were considered essential have become tangential in many families.

“The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once,” Brooks wrote. But a clear result has emerged: “People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mindset than people who grow up in a multi‐generational extended clan.”

In a cultural environment where the family structure has transformed from a tightly interconnected, extended group into a smaller, decentralized, looser network of relatives, members often lack clear expectations and guidelines for their relationships. The pandemic exacerbated this trend, as is now seen in many families’ new holiday practices. Today’s family members are freer than ever to establish their own rules for togetherness – or separation.


Kirsch, Melissa, The New York Times newsletter: The Chosen Family, July 4, 2022…

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