“Starting a Family”: Misleading and Damaging

It’s not uncommon for a young couple to mention that they’re looking to “start a family” or for someone who is looking for a spouse to say that part of what they want is to be able to “have a family”. We all know what people mean when they say this: they mean that they want to have kids. As someone who has no interest whatsoever in having children, this phrase implies many things that seem unhelpful and backwards to me.

First, it limits what a family can be, and it almost always means heterosexual, monogamous, cis partners with children. It cuts out any other family structure, even those that may include children. Generally the implication is that if you are not biologically related to the children, you don’t have a family. Adoption is placed on a lower tier, poly families make NO SENSE AT ALL, and GLBT families are utterly excluded (despite the fact that they can and do have kids).

But what really rubs me the wrong way about this is the idea that children are what make a family. Families are the people who are closest to us, who support us, who care for us, who we include in our most intimate decisions. They are not defined exclusively by blood: you can marry into a family, adopt into a family, or even (if you so choose) include certain friends or partners as part of your family. Each different way that we bring people into our lives in an intimate way is important and valid. Every formation of family improves our lives by giving us a support system and people who care for us (I am not referring to abusive structures here, but rather just different ways of setting up healthy relationships). And without these adult, caring, supportive, interdependent relationships, we cannot be healthy people.

So why is it that children are what defines “starting a family”? Didn’t all of us start our families the moment we had an intimate relationship, a close friend, a good relationship with our parents or our siblings, or provided support and care for our extended family? What does it say about how we value adult to adult relationships if a family only counts when we have kids?

This devaluing of adult to adult relationships has some serious consequences. It means that adults are pressured not to take time to connect with their friends, their siblings, their spouse or partners, or their mentors. When adults don’t take the time to establish healthy family networks of all types, that means they don’t have support and care when they need it. They don’t have someone they can ask to babysit or help out if they’re called in to work last minute. They don’t have other role models and mentors for their kids. They don’t have people who can support them if they lose a job or need health care. They don’t have people who can talk to them and support their emotional and mental needs. It means we have adults who don’t learn how to do the appropriate self-care of having a support network and taking time to be with other adults.

It also devalues the lives, accomplishments, and relationships of those who can’t or choose not to have children. The implication when someone says “start a family” to mean having a child is that those who don’t have children will never have families. It once again sends the message (especially to women) that their lives will be empty and alone if they don’t have kids. It says that they can’t possibly be getting the same kind of fulfillment and joy out of the relationships that they do have because they don’t “have a family”. Who on earth would want to refrain from having children? They won’t have a family!

All of this plays into the pressure to build your family in a certain way. It plays into the idea that unless you’re married or blood related, your relationship isn’t as important (which disproportionately affects people who are already oppressed). And this means legal rights, like right of attorney and inheritance. It means that I would not be able to visit the person I’ve lived with for the last 2 years if she were in the hospital simply because she’s “just a friend”.

It also means that children who have abusive or cruel parents are pressured to continue to interact with them, honor them, and respect them simply because of biology. It artificially divides relationships into “important, family” and “not important, other” through biology and the parent/child relationship.

This may seem like an unimportant phrase that comes from another time when families were all built a certain way. But the phrase implies that families look one way and there is one time when you begin to build your family. That’s simply not true and the consequences are that people are left more divided and more alone than they need to be.

I’m not playing by those rules anymore. I started a family ages ago. I started when I decided I wanted to put in the work to have a good relationship with my parents. I started when I decided to reach out to my brother. I started when I chose to reach out to new people and tell them that I care for them and wanted them in my life. I have a family. I don’t need to start one.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. Hear hear.
    I’ve had enough of people looking at me funny when I say I never intend on having kids – or, just as bad, subtly mocking me because they think my opinions will change because OF COURSE everyone wants kids.

    Not to mention all of this nuclear family crap, where all of a sudden you’re supposed to abandon all of your remaining kin and affines to generate a new branch somewhere.

    As long as people promote the narrow-minded, culturally myopic idea that there’s only one way to live your life properly, those of us on the fringe will never be free of this crap.

  2. I’ve run into this issue of late. I am nearly 49 years old. My parents are both dead. My husband’s family was never close to us, and since his mother basically “disowned” him more than ten years ago, we’ve not had any parental attachments. My other brother is a complete stranger to me and I absolutely do not want any relationship with him. So my family are our best friends. They are in their early 40s. They are the beneficiaries on our insurance, and will inherit everything if/when we are both gone. They are the ones who take care of our pets when we’re gone, and who give us rides places when needed. And we do the same for them. Recently one of them had to go in for a medical procedure that meant he couldn’t drive. His spouse doesn’t drive, so he needed a ride. Of course it was during the work day. I used my sick leave for it just like I would have done if I were driving my husband or a child or a parent to the doctor. I was non-specific about which “he” I was talking about when I told my boss I was taking “him” for a procedure. Technically, I could get in trouble for using my sick leave instead of annual leave because he isn’t “family”. I resent that I’m being denied a basic benefit that everyone else gets to take for granted just because my family doesn’t match what someone else has.

  3. I was with you until you said we can’t be healthy people by ourselves. I chose to be childfree without understanding the social implications. When it became obvious I was not going to be able to stay friends with people my own age when they all started having children I made new, younger friends online and embraced being alone. That’s why I didn’t want kids in the first place. I’m very good at being by myself. My own extended family is uninterested in me, focusing instead on the rest of my generation who procreated. And that’s fine. You are right that society doesn’t know what to do with people who don’t fit the mold, but being all by yourself is a valid option. I’m not unhealthy because I’m alone, it’s the other way around. I have back problems and other chronic health issues which is why I stay home instead of going to a job. I love that I can just lie down when I get tired without inconveniencing anybody. I can cook my own foods that don’t make me sick without being a pain in the ass at a restaurant. Being alone is awesome. Please add this to your list of alternatives to the husband-wife-son-daughter-dog-cat stick figures on minivans.

    1. All I meant by “it’s unhealthy to be alone” is that it’s unhealthy to have no other human beings that you are connected to. By your own admission you have friends. We are social creatures, and we’re interdependent creatures. You don’t have to live with people or define them as family, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone who has no interaction with other people or no support system whatsoever and is thriving. From the way you described your choice to find new friends, it sounds as if you prioritize having some connections as well. I think there is a spectrum from “utterly enmeshed” to “utterly alone” and most people fall somewhere in the middle in terms of their happy place. I think either end will probably be somewhat unhealthy. We can absolutely be individuals who don’t include others in our everyday lives. I just think everyone will probably need a friend at some point in their lives.

  4. No. The concept of “family” is personal and is defined by the people founding that family. The “founding of a family” is one of the universal human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    People getting married is “founding a family”. Unmarried people deciding to have children is “founding a family”. Unrelated people deciding to care for each other as if they were family is “founding a family”.

    I agree that it is unfortunate that people place limits on what other people can call “family”. That is unfortunate and in my mind is a violation of their Universal Human Rights.

    We are making progress in limiting the ability of outsiders to define our relationships for us. But that goes both ways. It also means that we can’t define their families for them either. If people consider that a “family” always includes children, then it is their absolute right to believe that for themselves. It is only when they try to impose that on others that it causes problems.

    1. I agree that “family” should be broadly defined and is socioculturally constructed, but your defense of that position is lacking. You say the concept of family is “personal” (it’s not, it’s cultural) and cite the UN Declaration of Human Rights to back up your claim. But, when I go look at that document, look what I find:

      Article 16.
      (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
      (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
      (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

      That says something quite different from what you’re claiming it says. It is linking together marriage and family, for one thing. And if you look at the third clause, it says that the family is a “natural” social unit. In other words, the UN does not define it as “personal” but as arising out of the “natural” (read: reproductive) relations in a heteronormative marriage. Not only that, but it says right there that the family is to be protected by the State, which means that the State creates regulations that limit what people can call family. In other words, rather than being against the UDHR, it is written right into the document that people can place limits on what is considered family.

      I have a lot of issues with the way the UDHR has set up this understanding of family, and I don’t think it should be the go-to document for this discussion as if it has some sort of authoritative meaning.

      And by the way, Olivia didn’t say that people shouldn’t have the right to consider their own families as only legitimate when children come in. She uses “we” to indicate our society should stop privileging the reproductive heteronormative nuclear family as more real or legitimate.

      1. Another unfortunate implication is “What about Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Mamie and Uncle James and…” Most cultures actually consider extended family, which the phrase “start a family together” pretends doesn’t exist.

        (Obviously there are often other issues with kinship. Over the last year, my feed’s had like, a dozen articles on child marriage-related deaths in Yemen.)

  5. @daedalus2u,
    I completely get and understand your point, however when someone believes that a family only includes children, they are unable to recognize other forms of “families” which may not be helpful to them. Yes, it is a right to be able to personally define “family,” but to apply that definition to others’ lives is impeding on THEIR right to define “family.”

  6. What would be a better phrase to use in lie of ‘starting a family’ from the POV of heterosexual, monogamous, cis partners. I think the phrase “starting a family” strongly implies having children, while just the singular word ‘family’ can have many variations including metaphorical uses like community. Can’t say I have seen “starting a family” without additional qualification in any other context.

    1. Expanding our family, adding onto our family, trying to get pregnant, gonna have a baby, our new addition. There are so many ways to define “planning to have children” that don’t carry the same implication discussed above.

      1. When we decided to try for kids, we went with “We’re going to start building our minion army.”

  7. The primary definition of family includes children. You may ask yourself why you feel the need to be defined in that way? Probably because marketers almost exclusively target children directly or indirectly to sell their products today and this is making parents feel very entitled. The message one gets as a child-free person is – companies don’t value you as a customer, and people with kids demand to have preferential treatment everywhere. So, be happy you are not being harangued and emotionally blackmailed by salesmen 24/7 and stay clear of families since they will most likely try to butt in front of you at the checkout lane.

    1. Yah, and by ALL MEANS, ladies, be happy that you don’t have all the pressure of being a CEO with all that heavy responsibility and people demanding that you make decisions and stuff.

  8. I came across the problem of “what is a family” in an almost comical way when I tried out a few genealogy programs to come to grips with the characters of “A Song Of Ice And Fire” (though I think this points to a serious problem):

    Some of the programs do actually prevent the user from entering families (or relationships) that deviate from the “(1 male + 1 female)person + n*child + m*fosterchild” formula. It may be that the developing communities are a bit slow in following developments in society and in that case it would be good practice to check for input that is perceived as “mistaken”, or it may be some less innocent reason. I remember Gramps as one offender.

    It seems ludicrous to me that this type of genealogy software can’t even grasp the relationship structure of the characters of some medieval fiction.

    I ended up using Geneweb or Lifelines. Geneweb has a web interface that accepts relationships between any two individuals (including incestuous ones which in my usage case is not unimportant;-). Lifelines is basically “anything goes” because it internally uses the GEDCOM specification, which imposes no limits and might even support relationships between more than two people (but don’t quote me on that one). In addition, the Lifelines developers have removed the requirements for “traditional” families from the user interface. I can live with the “two spouses” paradigm of Geneweb for now.

    It’s ironic that GEDCOM was developed by the LDS, given their stance on “family”. They probably took their views for granted and implemented sloppily;-)

  9. The phrase “starting a family” is also very weird because it implies that any family you had before is a separate group that is now being left behind. I don’t need to “start a family” because I have been lucky enough to have a family since the day I was born. If I were to have children they would be a part of the family I already have (which includes relatives and close friends) not the start of a new, separate group.

    Another reason that placing children as the definition of “family” is hurtful is that some people who don’t have children aren’t necessarily that way because they don’t want children. Some people would like to have children but can’t or don’t for whatever reason. It adds insult to injury to say that they can’t even be a family due to this “failure.” And it’s ridiculous. My husband and I do not have children, but we are most certainly a part of a family – a family that includes several children. And I think we add a lot of value to that family, since as people without kids of our own, we have the ability to provide support to the people with kids. That is very needed in my family, since it turns out there are three children on the autism spectrum within my family group. Their parents can use every bit of support, and I am happy to offer it.

  10. Context is most important, like the author states “We all know what people mean when they say this: they mean that they want to have kids”. In that context it should not be seen as misleading or damaging, because to use ‘family’ in that context it does not, by default, exclude other uses the word family can be used for. It would be different if someone was saying, we are going to start a family of type X and those people across the street of type Y are just pretending to be a family.

    To give a superficial analogy, would it be misleading or damaging to say to an audience, “how long did it take you drive to the meeting?”. But I am a motorcyclist, I don’t drive, I ride!

    1. Your analogy, superficial as it is, still demonstrates the original point. It doesn’t matter if you, personally, are not bothered by the use of “drive” over “ride” because most people “drive”. You are still being excluded by the use of the word. Motorcyclists are still not the default in people’s heads. Motorcyclists still get little consideration in traffic. There is rarely motorcycle-specific parking in a safe location at most public places. So the “drive-centric” language and societal default actually does “harm” you in tangible ways, whether or not it bothers you, personally.

      Treating the default structure of male-female married adults with kids as the default for “family” carries similar tangible harms to folks who are not in a male-female het relationship, who are not in a monogamus relationship, who do not have children, and whose family consists of their closest friends and no relatives (by blood or marriage) at all.

      I brought up an example of a direct, tangible issue with this default assumption of what “family” means that impacts me fairly significantly (I could lose my JOB over “misusing” my leave in such a way). Maybe it doesn’t bother you, but it does bother me.

      1. Please don’t take my criticism as some sort of personal attack, that it bothers you is sufficient cause to for you to highlight it. I am attempting to give a different perspective on the issue, that is all.
        My analogy was not intended to support the point, rather to highlight the fact that we can find ‘an excluding nature’ in just about any bit of media we care to look at.
        Other examples where minorities may be present but are not acknowledged:
        The open of a speech, “ahem,…ladies and Gentlemen…..” (no transgendered, or ambitious gender)
        “please be seated” but what of those in wheelchairs, or those that were unable to stand.
        “have a nice day” but I have just suffered a personal tragedy.

        In the western media, is there cause for concern if every persuasion of the human condition is not represented?

        I would maintain that situations above are just as much a ‘default assumption’ as ‘family’, as would a great many more if we took the time to think of some more. The point I am trying to make is that just because X is not included one should not assume that X is being excluded. language can be precise but is can also become unwieldily.

  11. Interesting thoughts. I dunno – there is something fundamentally different about having kids verses not having kids. One could say they are having kids, but there are plenty of people who have kids who don’t raise or take care of them and don’t intend to. “Starting a family” surely suggests that the people involved intend to have and raise children. Everyone has some sort of family – it would be impossible to exist without one. I can’t think of any words that somehow cover every single type of familial relationship. Also, many LGBT people are trying to “start” a family. If there was no value in marrying and having children, there wouldn’t be so much work into making sure LGBT people can do it.

    1. “marryingandhavingchildren” like it’s all one thing. Marrying is when you’re tying your life to another person’s(s’) socially, culturally, and legally. Marrying doesn’t (or shouldn’t) automatically include “and having children”. There are plenty of reasons to ensure that it is legal for everyone to tie themselves socially, culturally, and legally to another person(s) that have nothing to do with raising children.

      The biggest has to do with the legal protections, rights, and benefits that are bestowed automatically by the state the moment two individuals entwine their lives using the legal instrument of marriage. Rights and benefits that het couples take so for granted that most of them have no idea just exactly how many there are. Imagine trying to recreate the hundreds (thousands?) of rights/benefits granted to married couples using contracts and binding agreements. Things that any het couple can get bestowed as a wedding present by the state (not having to testify against one’s spouse, assumed rights in medical decisions, assumed rights at end of life, just to name a few) requires tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and contracts to reproduce just a PART of (there is no contract in the world that can bestow the right of not testifying against your partner when your marriage is not recognized by the state). That, itself, is sufficient reason to work for marriage rights.

      You can’t think of any words that cover every type of familial relationship? Well, for starters, how about family? The whole point of the post is that binding the word “family” so very tightly to “raising children” excludes all the other forms that family take. You can’t even imagine the word applying to anything other than the immediate unit of parents/children, that’s how inextricably they’re linked in our culture. And that’s the problem.

      1. Of course there are plenty of reasons that people do plenty of things. However, this article suggests there is something wrong with saying you want to “start a family.” Part of that reason is the idea that this must mean a man and woman having kids to raise together. However, it doesn’t have to be that – many people can come together to have children in different ways, and they may wish to say they want to “start a family” as well, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. As society progresses, most people won’t either.

        Now, of course there are other family relationships. Your parents and siblings and cousins and neighbors and literally anyone you are close to or not can be considered family, but I don’t thin saying you want to “start a family” necessarily disrespects these other relationships or disrespects people without children. There isn’t anything wrong with not wanting to start a family.

        1. Oh. It’s you again. How great.

          “However, this article suggests there is something wrong with saying you want to “start a family.””

          What? No one said there was anything wrong with wanting to have or start a family. What’s wrong is the very limited view of what “starting a family” means.

          “However, it doesn’t have to be that – many people can come together to have children in different ways, and they may wish to say they want to “start a family” as well, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. As society progresses, most people won’t either.”

          Not every family has children. The point is that the very narrow view of “starting a family” (even you allude to that) ignores and erases the multitude of different families. What about me? I’m never going to have children. I don’t lack a family. And I always get asked, “Are you going to get married? Don’t you want to start a family?” Or “Don’t you want a family?” i’ve been asked that! And it’s rude. I already have a family! Why do I need to start one? I have one. And such questions are always filled with judgement or pity which is ridiculous. And, as I said, rude.

          Did you even read the post? You seem to have missed the entire point of the post.

          “There isn’t anything wrong with not wanting to start a family.”

          Nope. You didn’t read or comprehend anything in this post or in the subsequent comments that directly address this point. Several times.

          You you done explaining things to us which you have very little understanding of, now?

  12. I miss the days of my youth when feminists were able to declare that they were promoting the abolition of the American Family. And I think we know what that means.

    Back in the nineties, when people like Kathleen Hanna and others were trying to bring back the concept of feminism to consciousness (and no, we were not trying to re-define feminism), we didn’t agree that feminism meant any damn thing a woman wanted to do, including being a stay-at-home-mom. That decision is not a “feminist decision.” It’s a personal decision that is not part of feminism as a whole.

    But to be able to smash the American Family and declare that Family was not the domain of fictitious nineteen-fifties tv shows, we had to have feminism. It was about being able to legally live one’s life un-escorted by a male-type person. Personal privileges are just not part of that struggle, no matter how earnest a woman is. I hope that younger women, millennials, or whatever, can appreciate what it took to be able to do this, and that social pressure against it was quite strong–even in the eighties.

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