Stone Cold Definitions: What is a Family?

American society is an interesting place: we value individualism and celebrate freedom, and strive for being the best in all that we do.  The road to achieving this is not an easy one, but as a nation, we understand this.  We train our children gradually by setting small tasks for them.  These tasks are designed to help our children “practice” for their imminent involvement in the “real” world, and it is the hope of those who create these “practice” sessions that children will grow into adults who are well-adjusted, productive Americans.

This training includes learning to do a variety of things—from the mundane to the complex—primarily by trial and error.  We put training wheels on bicycles; we spread education out over a period of twenty-plus years; we encourage part-time jobs before careers and raising a pet to learn the value of life and the seriousness of responsibility; however, when it comes to creating a family, we act like it is an all-or-nothing affair.  We define it in a single way, and access it as “successful” only in the extremist of circumstances.  American society may value individualism, celebrate freedom, and strive for perfection, but it can be an extraordinarily judgmental place for those who fall outside the parameters of the traditional definition of “family.”

Barbara Kingsolver examines the definition of “family” in her piece, “Stone Soup: What Does It Mean To Be a Family, Anyway?”  Her conclusion: that the defined parameters are simply too narrow and that America’s continuing to use this false standard is detrimental to all people.

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She is referring to a child’s soccer game and the fact that the child in question is surrounded by primary and extended family members—an entire cheering section of his own, but that social construct calls his family “broken” (305).  Obviously, “Andy” is not suffering for lack of anything while playing soccer—there is nothing at all “broken” about him or the people who make up his family.  Kingsolver’s point is powerful, and she demands each of us step back and consider the reason for family and the parameters by which the success of this configuration of people is judged.

The point of people joining together to create a unified structure (i.e. a “family”) is to strengthen the one by adding others.  The make-up of the family structure is rather arbitrary, and as Kingsolver points out, in other countries as well as in America’s past, the presence of several generations under one roof was commonplace (308).  Modern society has changed the basic dynamic of “family,” expecting the branching out of children as they reach adulthood, and the defining of parenting “success” by an offspring’s financial and familial productivity out in the world.

This does not sound at all like the makings of a strong “individual”; it sounds very much like a cookie-cutter environment churning out cookie-cutter people.  Kingsolver points out that “there’s a current in the air with ferocious moral force [. . .] claiming there is only one right way to do it, the Way It Has Always Been” and expresses how nonsensical this attitude is (305).

If we operated under the guise of “the Way It Has Always Been,” we’d still have slavery, children working in sweat shops, women who had no control over their own money, legalized domestic violence, etc.  Part of this nation’s strength comes from its ability to recognize flaws in its operations, make the necessary changes, and move on.  Why are we so slow to apply this to family?  As Kingsolver puts it, “this narrow view [of family] is so pickled and absurd I’m astonished that it gets airplay” (305).  Simply put, a group of people who join together to perform everyday tasks, including caring for a child/children, paying bills, maintaining a home, and caring for one another is a family.

People who were born before the internet, cellular phones, and the microwave oven survived, and many of them continue to do so without having adapted or integrated any of those items into their daily lives.  Those of us who make use of modern technology are not harmed by the lack of understanding or participation of those who choose to remain “behind” the times.

However, those who insist on the “traditional” definition of “family” and persist in applying derogatory terms to the variety of familial make-ups that have become more prevalent are harming those who choose to acknowledge familial advances.  “Divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, gay parents, and blended families simply are. They’re facts of our time” (307).

It seems odd that in a nation that is so sold on individuality and freedom of choice that it has begun to package cheese in balls, slabs, individually wrapped slices, and sticks that we shy away from a multi-faceted definition of family.  Perhaps the problem is the way in which people look at things.  Can it be that only a single parent struggling to get by understands that the slab is cheapest, and that it has the added benefit of one’s being able to cut it and wrap it in a variety of sizes and shapes that can be determined based on need?  Isn’t this a simple, physical example of the old adage that anyway you slice a thing, it is still the thing?  Does it really matter what the make-up of the family is as long as it fulfills it goals?  There are legitimate reasons for the changes seen in the modern family.

“Some of the reasons listed by sociologists for these family reconstructions are: the idea of marriage as a romantic partnership rather than a pragmatic one; a shift in women’s expectations, from servility to self-respect and independence; and longevity”

(Kingsolver 307).

Prepare a list of the things a person might fight hardest for in terms of “freedom,” and the freedom to choose a life partner has got to be near the top, and this freedom is not about one’s orientation: it is about one’s freedom—period.  Whether straight or gay, single or married, the freedom to enter into or leave a relationship seems fundamental.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses her preconceived notion of marriage and divorce: a notion that was constructed by the society in which she grew up—the society that continues to exist in America (306).  She admits to her naïve belief that in choosing a mate one could not err, and admitted that “once upon a time [she believed . . ] that everyone who [divorced] could have chosen not to do it.  That it’s a lazy way out of marital problems.  That it selfishly puts personal happiness ahead of family integrity,” but having lived her life and gone through a divorce, she now sees that this is simply not true.

This bursts not only the bubble of her expectations, it places the rest of her family, including her children, into a category that implies imperfection and an inability to perform up to expected standards.  Kingsolver equates the “judg[ing of] a family’s value by its tidy symmetry is to purchase a book for its cover” (308).  Oddly, the “children of divorce” are profoundly unaffected in many ways, and where adults see defeat, they see the opportunity to have two different homes and two sets of things as advantageous.  Certainly this isn’t always the case—as it is not always the case that a child raised in a “traditional family” goes unscathed.  Each situation and each experience is—dare I say—individual.

The closing anecdote in Barbara Kingsolver’s piece places the term Stone Soup in to context, and it is in this recollection that real advice can be seen.  While the story hinges on the soldiers’ plan, what happens all around them is of equal importance.  The message in the story is that both sides must be ready and willing to accept their opposition: the hungry soldiers gave in to the townspeople who in turn gave in to the hungry soldiers, and in the end, everyone is better for having shared.

The same is true of the modern family.  No one should be forced to give up the ideal of “family” anymore than anyone should give up the ideal of having a cupboard filled with food; however, everyone has got to be willing to acknowledge that their definition of “family” is relative—much like the “full” cupboard, and often simply adding to the pot what you can is sufficient.

Work Cited

Kingsolver, Barbara.  “Stone Soup: What Does It Mean To Be a Family, Anyway?”  The McGraw-Hill Reader: Issues Across Time.  8th ed.  Ed. Gilbert H. Muller.  LaGuardia: City U. of New York, 2003.  305-310.

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