On Family Day Might I Ask: Just What Is A Family?

Filed Under (Acceptance, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 15-02-2010

different-kinds-of-families-clip-art-thumb4433910I am awaiting Adam’s arrival home from his midwinter break with his dad. If you’ve been following my blog, the short story is that today, Adam will sleep for the first time in his new home as his mom and dad have separated.

On Family Day, I eagerly await him. On Valentines Day, I felt his absence, but knowing that he would be away, I arranged my first dinner party with family and friends who have been like family to me. Today, Adam’s grandparents and I will welcome him in a way that I have ritualized home and family for myself.

The year of adjusting to single parenthood has been interesting. I find myself brooding sometimes over stigmas that I have inherited. Things like encoded beliefs that we are more valued if someone finds us valuable, or that perhaps I’m not giving everything Adam deserves by being a single parent — that by being single our children feel the empty hole in their existence and it’s somehow our fault. Of course the emotional sides of these questions can be torture (and I’m sorry to say that I think they are unavoidable at first). Yet since these and other questions have caused me a great amount of pain, I am decoding the stereotypes that society has embedded into me that somehow I am incomplete; that to be a “complete family” means a mother, a father and a brood of children. Religion can be cited as a root cause of such beliefs. In order to protect the “tribe,” the history of the Hebrews – as one example – thought it was important to have many children, and Monty Python , well, they had a comment or two about the Catholics and breeding — but this is not to finger point in any way shape or form. It’s just that religion once had much to do with the way people made families and thought about them. War and the costs of having children also contributed to the decline of birth-rates in addition to families without fathers and brothers. Many events have changed our views about the constitution of the family.

Yet in this “day and age,” there are many kinds of families. In fact about 16% of Canadian children are raised by their mothers alone. While the couple stat is still the largest according to Stats Canada, the numbers are rising for “differently configured” families:

Since 2001, there has been a large increase in one-person households.

During this time, the number of one-person households increased 11.8%, more than twice as fast as the 5.3% increase for the total population in private households. At the same time, the number of households consisting of couples without children aged 24 years and under increased 11.2% since 2001.

The households with the slowest growth between 2001 and 2006 were those comprised of couples and children aged 24 years and under; these households edged up only 0.4%.

Between 2001 and 2006, the number of private households increased 7.6%, while the population in private households rose 5.3%.

The census counted more than three times as many one-person households as households with five or more persons in 2006. Of the 12,437,470 private households, 26.8% were one-person households, while 8.7% were households of five or more persons.

Classroom course-packs are created to explain the different configurations of the family. “Learners will explore how Canadian families have changed over time and examine the factors that contribute to changing family and household structures. They will then create written or illustrated profiles of families and households to describe key trends and changes,” it reads.

I’m thinking about Family Day awaiting Adam to come home, but of also the many friends I have who are single parents now. I think of all the friends I have as well who are only-children (do we attract one another or is it really the sign of the times?). So I walk and I’m thinking about being an only-child, how my dad is an only, adopted child, and how Adam is more or less an only-child. Like my mother, Adam’s half-siblings are so much older than he that my mother can attest that her life was very much like that of an only child. As an only child and as a person who has had to adapt many times over the course of her life, I became more flexible about the people in my life and how I regard them as family. For me, the family is an act of daily creation and that of my own making.

I’m quite certain my yearning to belong made me gravitate to people bigger families, but I can also say it’s an alien experience being there. People in big families don’t always understand that people in small families have to work hard to fit in and we don’t necessarily want to, entirely. We need to be accepted for who we are. While we, in small families, may escape the drudge of the family-guilt trip, the feuds or the politics, I suspect people in larger families don’t understand loneliness (another word that is a taboo and way over-stigmatized, thank you very much) and the need to be alone, while also the special skill we have at creating very close friendships. And yes, we need to be social too. As a quick aside, research into loneliness and solitude notes that people who are only children want and need solitude, and are sometimes lonely. Solitude and loneliness are not the same. If you don’t come from a large family, you just don’t get it completely. Having had the experience, it’s sort of like Christmas and all the presents at the beginning, but there exists an overall lack of understanding by both parties — the big family and the lone ranger — on how to co-exist. The lone-ranger, understanding that nothing in life is forever and certain, doesn’t quite comprehend how the big family member can take it all for granted (and sometimes even envies that!). The lone ranger needs to get close and sometimes big families just don’t have that kind of time. It is only at the point where things fall apart can the lone ranger really use her skills and hold people afloat. The big family is created. The small one keeps creating. One is not better than the other. They just are.

I am very close to my parents and to some of my extended family members. My shape of family may not be traditional, but it exists. The act of creating families is an active experience not exclusive to a couple and procreation. Let’s just say that I don’t take my version of family for granted, and I highly appreciated the bigger one I once belonged to (and of course who are still there and who I still love in my lone-ranger kind of way).

I watch the other single people today as I go on my walk on this chilly February day in Toronto — some are eating alone at restaurant tables as I pass by. I imagine some of them are without children and others are older who perhaps have lost their families, and I think about how most of us are trying to do the best we can, and some of us can feel particularly lonely on a Family Day. Yet I bet that most of these people have friends (who are with their families) and are chit-chatting with the people who have to work today, or maybe with the person at the table next to them. Some other families might be taking great advantage of the holiday and may be spending it together, hopefully not pitying those who are without families (remember, pity stands perilously on the ledge of fear). Like Christmas, contrived holidays can make a lot of people who do not belong to a traditional family, feel like they are missing something. No one should have to feel as if they are missing something!

What I’m happy to see is that all kinds of families are beginning to become more accepted, but we need to discuss the nature of the family even more so that we can support all kinds of families — gay, single, common law, married, separated, extended, and the groups of friends that really, can be more like family than the families we’re born to. Because really, none of us are alone. We are one big family and an important member of mine is about to join me in his new home.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.