Family in the Lives of Adults without Children: 3 Creative Lines of Thinking

The many meanings of family

Posted Sep 10, 2010

When I wrote the post, Single, no children: Who's your family?, I was just beginning to think about that question in a systematic way for the chapter I was invited to write. (The comments that were posted were so thoughtful and heartfelt that I saved them in a file to reread now and then.)

I've been reading more and more of the professional books and journals, and for the most part, I've been exasperated by how neglected this group of people has been in the massive research literature on families. Happily, I've come across three exceptions. Here I'll preview them, and in subsequent posts, I'll tell you more about them.

In 2007, the Journal of Family Issues devoted all of the October and November issues to research and theory about people who have no children. The topic was called, "Multiple meanings of childlessness in late life: Findings from 7 societies."

In their essay introducing the special issues, Pearl Dykstra and Gunhild Hagestad opened with this compelling paragraph:

"This issue is about a sizable category of older people - those who have no children. Even though they currently represent around one in five persons older than age 65 years, and even though 30% of the U.S. population age 70 to 85 years in 2030 will be without a spouse and without children, they have been rendered invisible, relegated to the dark corners of the literature on adult development, aging, life course, and family. Pick up handbooks, textbooks, and journals in these fields and chances are high that you will not find childless in the index."

I also appreciate the way the authors frame the topic:

"It is common to hear young adults being asked, ‘Do you have a family?' and responding, ‘not yet.' Seldom does the person who posed the question follow up with the query, ‘So you have no parents, no brothers and sisters, no aunts and uncles, and no cousins?' We tend to disregard the fact that everyone is someone's child, and the parent-child ties from the family of orientation may last for more than 60 years!"

Dykstra and Hagestad, along with other scholars who worked on the 7-nation study, take on the belief that adults without children "don't have anyone" and attack it with data. More on that to come.

The second source of unconventional thinking about what counts as family are some of the scholars of gay and lesbian life. A number of them were on the vanguard of recognizing that mainstream family scholars have been going nuclear way too long, and that we need to think beyond the unit of mom, dad, and the kids to understand the important people in our lives.

A related perspective has been offered by (among others) feminist scholars studying single mothers. Family, they suggest, is not about who we are (a mother, a spouse) but what we do. "Doing family" is doing the kinds of things that family members do, regardless of your biological or legal relationship with the people involved.

Stay tuned!