Life Without Baby

Filling the silence in the motherhood discussion

It Got Me Thinking…About Traditional Families May 22, 2012

By Kathleen Guthrie Woods

I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting. White, upper-middle-class, staunchly Republican. Parents still married to each other (celebrating 50 years this summer). Dad worked for the same company for 47 years; Mom stayed home to raise three all-American kids. Look at a snapshot of any holiday celebration, and you’ll see us gathered around the dining room table, with flowers from Mom’s garden in the centerpiece, a golden turkey nesting in a great-grandmother’s platter, and everyone dressed with a smile. Picture-perfect.

The flowers, turkey, and smiles are the same in contemporary photos, but we’ve added a few new players. My brother married his college sweetheart and they introduced four beautiful daughters. My sister went off to college and came home a Democrat. Then she went off to graduate school and finally figured out she was a lesbian. A few years later, she joined her partner in a commitment ceremony, and they welcomed two boys with contributions from a sperm donor, a “donor daddy.” I was the lone ranger for many years, the only single person at the table, till I met and married my husband in my mid-40s. He is African-American, and we are childfree.

While growing up and well into adulthood, I never imagined there was any other kind of family for me outside of the traditional model that raised me. I had every expectation that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and create a home and family in her image. I held tightly to that illusion, through many unfulfilling relationships and socially awkward encounters (“Why aren’t you married?” “Don’t you like children?”). I think it’s a miracle that my “right” family was revealed to me and that I am able to embrace it.

I would argue that our society’s definition of a “traditional” family is flawed. Certainly census statistics show that single-parent homes, adults living alone, and mixed-race families are more the norm than marketing directors would have us believe. I look down our street here in San Francisco (and, admittedly, we are a liberal and open community), and I see this reflected back to me through our neighbors’ homes where multiple generations, languages, races, and genders commingle without special notice.

Here in the childfree community, we’re often made to feel that our families are “nontraditional,” which translates to “less than” or “incomplete.” This way of thinking is so judgmental, so hurtful, and so unnecessary. If you’re single, you can create your own family among close and supportive friends. If you’re married or in a committed relationship, you know that it takes only two to make your family. Other people expand their families to include caretaking of nieces and nephews, elderly relatives and friends, or beloved pets.

The “nontraditional” extended family I am part of today is a beautiful thing, defined by love, acceptance, and respect. In my own home, I feel blessed to be one of a family of two, which we augment by sharing our table with friends who have become family. This is my family, this is my new traditional, and I think it’s perfect.

Kathleen Guthrie Woods is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She is working on a memoir about her journey to embracing life without baby.


15 Responses to “It Got Me Thinking…About Traditional Families”

  1. mina Says:

    It’s a bit hard, being single, to create my own family “among close and supportive friends” when all my friends are doing is getting married and having children. It means being torn forever between the deep relationship to those friends and their offspring (as a godchild, for example) and feeling left out again and again.

    • Kathleen Guthrie Woods Says:

      Mina — I so understand this and it’s something I will be addressing in future posts. Being childfree is hard enough. Being childfree + single is where I spent most of my adult life, and it sucks (no matter how much we work at having good attitudes). I won’t sugarcoat. Stay tuned for more discussion along these lines. And be gentle with yourself.

      • shari Says:

        Mina, I am in the same boat as you. All the people in my life have a spouse, and/or kids and grandkids. They only seem to have time for me if there is nothing else going on in their lives. Meanwhile, I try to fill my life with dogs, work and books. People that know me see a happy person with a positive attitude. I went on my first date in 10 years today. During lunch, the conversation was steering toward family and children, I didn’t know what to say. Should I mention my infertility? Please advise.

    • mina Says:

      @Kathleen: Thanks for understandig. I am looking forward to more posts and discussion :-)!
      @shari: I can’t advise you… my problem is I am not infertily but thinking that no man who really wants kids would want me by now, turning 40 years old soon. I don’t have the courage to go on dates now. I didn’t have when my partner left me two years ago because I felt this tremendous pressure to find a future father for my kids RIGHT NOW. Now 2 years have passed and the chances are getting slimmer, so I still don’t date. I guess it doesn’t makes sense but i suppose subconciously (or half-consciously) I’ve decided that things are actually easier if I stop trying to make it come true at any cost.

      • rantywoman Says:

        I’ve also decided to stop dating at the moment, because, for example, with online dating I don’t know, at 42, how I would answer the question of whether or not I want kids. I did, but it seems too late now, so I’m coming to terms with not having them. I feel like in a few years maybe it will be easier because I can definitively answer “no.”

    • rantywoman Says:

      I posted about this today:
      It is tough. I feel like I’ve really had to learn how to be happy doing things alone and giving up my expectations of “community.”

  2. Dorothy Says:

    I have not been blessed with a traditional family arrangement, but I would never take that leap in logic to call the traditional model “flawed”. Like you, I simply formed a new tradition. I have not fallen prey to the “either/or mentality”, but instead embraced the “both/and” of democracy. The traditional family has been a cornerstone of American culture since our country was founded. It is not flawed. It is just a different tradition.

    My family of two is not the same as a family of two-plus, nor is it the same as the consecrated religious community definition of two-multiplied, but the church has never made me feel condemned or less-than. I did a good job of that even after she picked me up and embraced me as her child because I kept comparing my family to other models.

    God bless you, Kathleen, for the progress you have made to carve out a new tradition! It has taken a great amount of courage to stand for what you believe in.

  3. Maria Says:

    I grew up in a family that appeared traditional – mother and father married 54 years, 5 siblings, all of whom married and have children of their own and maintained the traditional role of wife at home with kids, breadwinner husband. I was always the odd person in the family. I went to law school, established a career, married a sensitive artistic man, and we had no children (my infertility). My family has always judged me very harshly but I am the happiest in my life and my marriage, and am proud of the person that I have become. The only time I don’t maintain that outlook is when I have to interact with my familyso I have had to limit contact with them over the years. Good friends have taken their place so I totally understand what you say about creating your own family

    • Kathleen Guthrie Woods Says:

      “…but I am the happiest in my life…” Can we all just celebrate that? Isn’t that what we’re all after? True happiness with ourselves, in whatever path we follow. Brava, Maria, for being true to yourself and taking pride in what you’ve created.

  4. loribeth Says:

    I think most families these days are far less traditional than some of them (& certainly marketers) would have you believe. My first impulse is always to tell people I had a stay-at-home mother — and she was, before my sister & I started school — but from then on, she almost always worked. Mostly part-time, and she was often home before or shortly after we got home from school, when we were in school — but she definitely worked. When she was in her 50s, she went back to school & got her diploma as an educational assistant, and only just retired a few years ago when she was 65. I am so proud of her. : )

    A few years ago, I got thinking, and realized I actually had a substantial number of cousins (my mother’s cousins or their children) who were either still single &/or childless, into their 40s & beyond. I have no idea what their stories are, & I’m not about to pry, but the vast majority of them seem to be quite happy, dote on their nieces & nephews, and lead interesting & productive lives. That helped me to feel a bit better about my own situation. It’s nice to have role models and people at family gatherings you can talk to about something besides kids & grandkids.

    As for my dad’s side, & dh’s (where, on his mother’s side, we are the only adult couple in the family that does not have children)… oh well!

  5. Wolfers Says:

    I grew up in a single-parent family (divorced mother), unfortunately with family violence. That influenced me to decide against having chidren for many years; I had to go through therapy to learn to take care of myself and let go of anger and unrealistic expectations. I had to find myself, since I was very much a “clone” of my mother as she shaped, and so recovery took longer for me to become my own individual. It was only a few years ago when I realized my mother won’t outlast my waiting to get pregnant.( didn’t want her around when I’d have a baby, she has that personality disorder that believes everything revolves around her. I was afraid she’d actaully fight to get custody if I had a baby, since she felt me being Deaf, I “should not have children.” And yes, she said that.)

    Ironically, I had seen traditional families very common in my dad’s side; everyone at the Thanksgiving table, everyone for everyone, with hugs and love- so that gave me an unfortunate expectation that failed me in the end- thinking I HAD to be in a tradiational family to be happy, to find fulfillment.)

    Now I am childless, not by choice (after trying for a while and finding out why I can’t get pregnant). it’s too soon to say, but I am not saying no to adoption or surrogacy- but just not now.

    So- I think hard, and I’ll tell you, I’ll pass on the traditional family, if it means interpreting it as a fulfillment in life, “something to mark on the list, “check.” I don’t want to make my life ‘complete’ with a family, be it traditional or nontraditional, single-parent or three-parents, just because society says so.
    I want a family that is full of love, communication, acceptance, challenges; fie on what others think.

  6. Mali Says:

    This is a nice point. That family is family, whether related by blood or not, and I do like that today it is very well accepted. I grew up in a “traditional” family on a farm, surrounded by other traditional families. But times changed, divorces arrived first amongst my parents’ generation, then in my own (sisters, cousins, etc), remarriages, cross-cultural/racial marriages, adoptions (on both sides of the story), and things started looking a bit different. Throw in my friends – gay couples, couples who never married but had the traditional two kids, single parents, etc – and family to me now simply means people who love each other, and want to be together.

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