Redefining the Modern Family

Sweeping social and technological changes are redefining how society views the modern family.

Modern Family

The archetype of a husband and wife with their children is no longer the standard of the modern family. Social and technological progress has helped change the landscape and ultimately what society sees as a family.

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Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015) by Joshua Gamson takes a thorough look at the modern family structure and how it has evolved over time. Gamson takes a look into the "traditional" nuclear family and how that image of family may have never been the norm to begin with. The following excerpt is taken from the introduction of Gamson's book and helps frame his journey of coming to terms with what it means to be a family in today's society.

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Redefining the Modern Family

These kids I know were sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley a few years ago, on the evening of their preschool’s Winter Gathering, the centerpiece of which is performances by the preschoolers of little shows they mostly wrote themselves. My daughter Reba, then five, was in the older group, and her show was to be about the adventures of a brown paper package: it gets picked up by two dogs, which are chased by two cats, which drop it in front of two mailmen, who deliver it to a Superboy, who takes it to two astronauts, who send it on a rocket into outer space, from which it floats down to earth and lands on two sleeping girls, Reba and her friend Donatella.

Reba was practicing her line while munching a pot sticker: “A brown paper package tied up with strings, this is one of my favorite things!” Next to her, her friends Diego and Flora were playing with chopsticks, while several parents and grandparents chattered across her.

“If she doesn’t have a mom,” Diego asked me out of the blue, pointing to Reba, “how did she get born?” Diego was blond, almost five, obsessed with sports, missing a front tooth, and wore glasses. His father, Owen, looked at me with amusement and awaited my answer. It was noisy, but I saw Ronda, Flora’s grandmother, lean toward us from two chairs down. One of Ronda’s other grandchildren, Flora’s cousin Milo, has two mothers.

“That’s a great question,” I said, buying a little time. For a second I wanted to ask what made him think of this question right now, then thought better of it. The five-year-old mind presents questions — why trees are called trees, what is the purpose of the rib cage, where water goes when you flush the toilet, whether American Idol is real — whose origins are mysterious and the tracing of which is often futile. Other paths of questioning reveal more. “Do you want to try guessing?” I asked. Diego liked to puzzle things out. The week before, he’d thrown up on his way down the school staircase and had to be taken home, and I’d agreed to pop over to babysit so his parents could go to various work-related meetings. We’d played checkers. When his tears began to well up, I’d made some very bad moves, but I could see that he was as interested in pathways as in winning: if he made a move here, I might capture his guy, but if he moved there, I would get crowned. He was in.

“Did her grandma have her?” Diego asked. Owen’s amusement grew, as did mine. The image of my mother or my mother-in-law pregnant with our child was charmingly repulsive.

“No, but that’s a really good guess,” I said, smiling at Owen.

“Maybe one of you guys had her,” Diego suggested. Reba quieted a little bit beside me. She knew I usually told people with questions about her to just ask her directly.

“No, men’s bodies can’t get pregnant,” I said, reminding him of the fact that sat behind his original question. “But we really wanted to have a baby, and since we couldn’t get pregnant, we needed help.” I could feel Diego’s attention start to flag and ready itself for the next topic or activity, so I quickly cut to the chase. “So an old friend of ours helped us, and she got pregnant with Reba and carried her in her belly for nine months and then gave birth to her.”

“Oh,” said Diego, grabbing a pot sticker. “My chopstick holder is orange!” “So’s mine,” said Reba. “Mine, too,” said Flora.

Almost five years earlier, a few months into Reba’s life, on a work trip to Santa Fe we’d turned into a family vacation, my husband Richard and I were in a jewelry store looking for southwestern stuff to give as gifts. We’d plopped baby Reba on the floor to entertain herself and others.

“Where did you get her?” the proprietress asked, leaning over the counter to coo at Reba. In the beginning of Reba Sadie’s life, we regularly encountered such impertinent questions from strangers — on the street, at the airport, in the park. “Where did you get her?” was a common one and also “How long have you had her?” Usually, these questions were preceded by compliments on our baby’s cuteness — round face, bald head, observant eyes, quick smile — and asked in a kind tone, though one I found somewhat patronizing, the way you might ask a friend about a new puppy. The questioners clearly meant well. They seemed to be indicating that they really got us, that they understood our unusual family. They had no idea that they were communicating quite the opposite, triggering an urge to shoot down their presumptions, bam-bam-bam, until they were flustered, squashed, and ashamed.

Instead, I usually smiled. I tend not to rage in public. If they had a child with them, I’d sometimes say, “Long story. Where did you get yours?” Or I’d answer with a polite smile, “Oh, we’ve had her since way before she was born.” Or I’d just repeat the question, all innocent-like: “Where did we get her? I don’t understand what you mean.” Richard is in many ways my mirror. Whereas my anger leaks out through the cracks in a cold wall, he sometimes rages hotly and openly, which quickly frees him to laugh and smile. So he let the Santa Fe jewelry store lady have it.

“What is it with you people?” he blasted. “Why do you always ask that?” Et cetera, until he was fully unloaded, by which time the saleswoman was sobbing.

The next thing I knew, I was outside corking the baby with a bottle, and Richard and the woman were deep in intimate conversation. It turned out she wanted kids but had been told that she was too old; she’d recently married a man with grown children who had no interest in adopting. She was grieving the life she’d thought she would have and saw in us some kind of possibility or familiar dream. She was identifying, not objectifying. And so, standing outside the store, Richard gave her a gift: he told her the whole story of Reba’s willful and complicated creation, which we kept rather close: of this black Jewish baby, conceived by in vitro fertilization with one dad’s sperm and the egg of a woman close to us, who almost wasn’t but then became an embryo on the anniversary of the death of her namesake, my grandmother, then was implanted inside the ex-girlfriend of one of her fathers, who carried her in Virginia and birthed her in Massachusetts, from whose winter the family returned to her home in California to get on with it. While I was impatiently waiting, they were laughing a lot and crying some, and they parted with a hug.

It was she who suggested an answer to the question she’d asked. “The next time,” she said, “just say, ‘We conceived her.’” And that’s what we took to saying. We conceived her. We imagined her, dreamed her up, and, with lots of help, brought her into being. It wasn’t long before the questioning subsided — as Reba Sadie’s proximity to creation faded, so apparently did the issue of her beginnings — but that experience shifted and pushed me. I started to reinterpret, with more generosity, the constant questioning we’d received. The assumptions and presumptuousness were there, but behind them, I saw, was often not so much ignorance as curiosity and not so much the misrecognition of us as some kind of self-recognition. People really just wanted to know about origins: how a life and a family started when not everything was easy and scripted; how biology, social roles, choice, circumstance, and intention conspired to create and locate this little person; whether and how this child’s entry into a family was the same as that of the kids they knew or had. The questions, in retrospect, weren’t that different from a child’s: If she doesn’t have a mom, how did she get born? And so I decided to answer them.

As I started to compile the story of making my own family, it seemed that everywhere I turned I bumped into another child whose family was deliberately unconventional and whose entry into that family was somehow extraordinary. This one was the child of two mothers and was made with one mother’s egg and the sperm of a man none of them has ever met; that one the child of two mothers and was made with the sperm of one mother’s old friend, who remained prominent in her life as something between an uncle and a father. This one was born to a man and a woman in Ethiopia and was delivered by his natural grandmother to an orphanage when both his parents died in close succession and then to the arms of his mother, whom I’ve known for thirty-five years and who was raising him solo.

These twins were made when their parents chose an egg donor from an online description, fertilized her eggs with some sperm from each of them, and implanted their embryonic selves into the uterus of another woman who had agreed to carry them for a fee. Those twins were made when their mother, who after much trying discovered she could not become pregnant and whose husband was sterile, used both donor eggs and donor sperm and gave birth to them months after being told that they would have to be removed to protect her body from a lethal infection.

That one was made when his mothers, a couple, made an arrangement with his fathers, also a couple, to become parents together; these two were adopted from Nepal and India by Richard’s best friend, who was raising them with her girlfriend and a gay couple in another four-parent family. Those are just a few of the kids I saw most days. Plus, there were these kids right here, my own two daughters.

When as a child in Ann Arbor I imagined being a father, I knew no such elaborate stories. Like almost everyone else I knew, my own creation story hardly seemed worth discussing. The reproductive biology, once learned, was assumed, as was some parental dating backstory that was none of anybody’s business. We trotted my story out on birthdays, and even then it was entirely focused on the few hours surrounding birth.

It goes like this: Two weeks after my due date, I showed no interest in emerging; this perhaps suggested an inherent tendency toward caution, laziness, or both. My parents, already annoyed at how much of their lives had been on hold since my sister’s birth a couple of years earlier, went ahead with a party for a visiting scholar. Just as the party was getting going, my mother’s contractions began, as if the sounds of small talk and clinking glasses were enough to summon me from the womb; this indicated an inherent taste for dramatic entrances, parties, or both. Anyway, the festivities continued while my parents were at the hospital and erupted into a cheer when my father called our house after midnight to announce to the partygoers that the baby boy had arrived. More glasses were clinked. The end. I figured my future kids would each have a story like mine but with its own unique twist. Maybe it’d be about rushing to the hospital in a speeding car with a police escort and almost being born in a beaten-up Ford Escort. Maybe it’d be about arriving a little early, when we were on vacation at the beach or something, taking a taxi to a nearby hospital, and about entering the world to the smells of saltwater and taffy. The stories would be sweet, exciting, and brief. That’s not really how it worked out.

This book tells the tales of how several different families, including my own, were created against the grain of conventions and also often of institutions. The stories involve different types of unconventional family creation: adoption and assisted reproduction, gay and straight and transgendered parents, coupled and single- and multi-parent families. They often began many years before any actual birth and involved constellations of characters far beyond mother, father, and doctors. Family creation was painstaking and often difficult, requiring inventiveness, persistence, and capital of various kinds. Often, parts of biological reproduction took place in a different body than that of the parents raising the child; sometimes, the model of kinship was made up virtually from scratch, often in tension with legally and socially sanctioned versions of family.

The stories here may satisfy curiosities, which is great, though not my main objective. I mean to offer an exceptional spot from which to view the norms, conventions, and institutions that regulate contemporary family making. You might do best to think of this not as a systematic study of unconventional family creation — it certainly is not that — but as a series of stories of that process told from inside a particular linked set of social networks. Or you might think of it as an oral history of how some people made their families in the early years of the twenty first century. More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.

This book is forward looking, but it’s also about capturing a period in a much-longer history of family creation and family discourse. As the historian Stephanie Coontz has put it, much family discourse is based on nostalgia for the “way we never were,” a mythical Leave It to Beaver time when families were made up of a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman, married and living together behind a white picket fence, raising together their biological offspring, with a clear division between male breadwinner and female child-rearing roles. To the degree that such a “nuclear” family form ever existed, the psychologist Ross D. Parke points out in Future Families, it was dominant only for a brief period and only for some people. Consult history for a minute. The form slave families took was hardly the nuclear one, the legal scholar Stephen Sugarman has noted, as slave couples weren’t allowed to marry, male slaves couldn’t possibly be breadwinners, and female slaves couldn’t be stay-at-home mothers. In the nineteenth century, moreover, poor immigrant women typically worked outside the home, and “multigenerational living arrangements were common.”

Across the twentieth century, too, people raised kids who were not their own biological progeny — a sister’s child born out of wedlock, the children of a second husband, and so on. Many children were born to parents who later came out as homosexual, too. Family arrangements have been far more complex and diverse than a single, normative family form could contain. Still, even if the nuclear family is a historical myth, it’s been very powerful as ideology.

As Parke says, it “is the template against which other family forms are judged.” It has encouraged people whose families departed from the norm to treat those departures as family secrets, and that secrecy has in turn helped protect the notion that the One True Family is a husband, a wife, and their biological children. It has encouraged people to see variations — say, the broad kinship networks that have often characterized poor African American communities — as deviant and pathological.

Just a few years ago, in a major national survey conducted by the sociologist Brian Powell and his colleagues, 100 percent of respondents agreed that “husband, wife, children” counted as a family, and a single man or a single woman with children counted for around 94 percent; the percentage saying that two women or two men with children counted as a family hovered around 55 percent. “Husband, wife, no children” counted for 93 percent of the respondents, but “two men, no children” and “two women, no children” counted for just 26 percent. The One True Family ideal is still so strong, that is, that a lot of people’s arrangements just don’t seem to count.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that the heteronormative, biological family ideal has been losing its pride of place over the past few decades; that more than half the people surveyed by Powell and his colleagues saw same-sex parents as a family is actually quite remarkable, given that those very parents were born into a world where homosexuality was still criminalized. The cultural visibility of stepfamilies, adoptive families, mixed-race families, and same-sex families has expanded dramatically in recent years.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the long-running television show Modern Family, which began airing in 2009: it features Jay, a white guy in his sixties who has remarried a much younger Colombian woman with whom he has a child, and the relationships between them and Jay’s grown daughter, her husband, and their three kids and also Jay’s grown son, his husband, and the girl they adopted from Vietnam. It’s television, so they all have lovely houses and none of their troubles is too troubling, but the show does present a telling contrast to the 1950s Ozzie and Harriet world that the show implicitly references. Modern Family was nominated for over a hundred major awards, including fifty-seven Emmy Awards, and won “Best Comedy” Emmys five years in a row. Family diversity is not just visible; it gets awards.

Even children’s books, which have long reinforced the One True Family ideology — with adoptive, blended families, same-sex families, and even mixed-race families treated mainly as special topics — have begun to make family diversity more visible. As Todd Parr, an award-winning and best-selling children’s book author and illustrator, summed it up it in The Family Book, a staple in many a home and preschool, some families are big. Some families are small. Some families are the same color. Some families are different colors. All families like to hug each other! Some families live near each other. Some families live far from each other. Some families look alike. Some families look like their pets. All families are sad when they lose someone they love. Some families have a stepmom or stepdad and stepsisters or stepbrothers. Some families adopt children. Some families have two moms or two dads. Some families have one parent instead of two. All families like to celebrate special days together! There are lots of different ways to be a family. Years after becoming a best-seller, The Family Book was banned by a small Illinois school district after some parents complained about the page acknowledging two-mom and two-dad families, arguing that it raised “issues that shouldn’t be taught at the elementary school level.” The ban appeared to be a sad and lonely one, though, indicating perhaps that even many defenders of the mythical “traditional family” now recognize that, when it comes to families, nontraditional is well on its way to becoming the new normal.

Much of this promotion of family diversity — and the cultural demotion of the One True Family ideology — reflects the simple fact that new family forms have become more common in recent decades and their existence thus harder to deny. And that phenomenon is due in large part to the expansion of pathways to parenthood. A large cluster of social forces has converged over the past several decades to make it possible for people to pursue parenthood in nontraditional ways: the actions of social movements pushing for women’s reproductive freedom and lesbian and gay family rights; the development of reproductive technologies that make it possible for sperm and ovum to meet without heterosexual intercourse and for women to carry babies that they did not conceive; the spread and normalization of divorce; the rise of women’s labor-force participation and, for some women, delayed childbearing; the wars and worldwide economic inequalities that orphaned some children and left some parents without the means to provide for their children; the globalization of communication, commerce, and travel; the rise of reproduction-related entrepreneurship and social service professions, whose members have created organizations and programs devoted to easing alternative forms of family creation. That’s a lot. Each of these developments has been controversial, and each entails its own complex power struggles.

The result, though, has been a gradual, forceful shattering of the ideology that the only real, natural, legitimate way for people to become a family is for a married man and woman to conceive a child through sexual intercourse and then raise it together in their home. It probably shouldn’t be surprising to find people picking through the shards of that myth, not really meaning to be rude, trying to piece together the details of how, if not in the old-fashioned way, these new families came to be. The old origin stories no longer hold. 


Reprinted with permission from Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinshipby Joshua Gamson and published by New York University Press, 2015.