What Defines a Family?

Below is a year-long project I completed during my senior year of high school. We were asked to pick a research question that does not have a definite answer. Due to my own past experiences, I decided to try to answer the question: “What defines a family?” I hope you enjoy it! Please let me know what you think!


Defining Family

Families have evolved continuously, causing difficulty when trying to find one central definition. There are opinions of what a family is, and of what it is not. Definitions differ from everyone’s perspective. A question appears of whether homosexual couples, unmarried couples with children, or single parents with children, are families. In my own experience, a family can differ in a variety of ways. My mother passed away from cancer in 2009, then in 2012, my dad remarried, giving me a stepmom and stepsister. I have gained many new family members. Even if they are not entirely related to me, they are just as important. I have learned it is not always easy to be a part of a family, but it is, personally, essential to my survival. I have gone through struggles with family, but they have never pulled us apart. Difficulties, everyday worries, and other issues are all items that family members can take on together. There is not one existing family that is perfect. Family is defined by a unit of related people wherein there are no boundaries of what is and is not acceptable.

Most families must go through difficulties or struggles with one another, but those problems cannot always tear a family apart. Examples of these struggles can be sickness and disease, death, divorce, or strong disagreement. In My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, a novel explaining the difficulty of having cancer and other internal struggles in the family, Anna feels out of place in her family because of her sick sister, Kate. This cancer causes turmoil in the family in between almost everyday hospital visits and days where Kate refuses to get out of bed. Anna is used by her family as a donor to help provide platelets and bone marrow to her sister, and then is asked to donate a kidney. Anna does not want to give up her kidney for her sister because she has already given so much of her body. Anna tells the reader about the situation by saying, “Lately, I’ve been having nightmares where I’m cut into so many pieces that there isn’t enough of me to be put back together” (13). Anna does not want to have her body disrespected anymore by her family. She feels as though she does not belong, that she is only a child her parents brought into the world to keep her dying sister, alive. Although, through the sickness and struggles, and after a court case of Anna suing her parents, they grow closer. A family supports one another and gives all that they have towards the relationships. However, causing a young girl, like Anna, to have many surgeries and procedures done, is disrespectful and unfair. Families have a close bond, especially when tough times arise. Nontraditional families also have become a large part in many everyday lives, which can cause disagreement in media or politics. In an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, a nontraditional family is introduced. This family in Richmond currently includes two parents and twenty children. Two of the children in this family have Down Syndrome, and another child has Cystic Fibrosis. One of the two parents, Bill, explains, “I realize that we don’t fit the typical mold, but when you grow up in it, it’s just normal for us” (Lohmann). Bill and his wife, Sharon, explain that they know they may not be a traditional family, or that they know it is odd to have twenty children, but to them it is normal. However, in the L os Angeles Times, i t is explained that there is no such thing as a normal family. Normal families are only shown on media and television. The author of the article, Mike Spencer, answers, “There is no such thing as a functional family…That’s an illusion created by dysfunctional families to torment themselves.” Families are important for survival and success. Although families are not functional all of the time, they are important to society and to one another. No matter who is in that family, or how normal or different they are, they are still a family.

The definition of family has changed in many peoples’ minds. Many people believe that there should only be one type of family. The family type being traditional with having a mother, a father, and one or more children. Many other people believe that this does not matter, that whomever is part of the family is what is important. In the documentary Natural Family Values directed by Frank Feldman, the family unit is supposed to be the way it has been since families began. While they are trying to change that view, most still believe that “the natural family includes one man, one woman, and a quiver of children.” Many do not want that view of a ‘natural’ family to change, and are not willing to allow same­sex marriage or same­sex couples in the city of Kanab, Utah. Although many do not want their society and city to change the law, others are open to the change and have pushed for the movement by posting stickers that say “Everyone Welcome Here” on the outside of their stores and offices. A councilman from Kanab shares his story by saying that before he married his current wife, she was married. Before the councilman and his wife were married, his wife had a child. Soon after their marriage, the two adopted another child. Although some see this as untraditional, others find it normal and they are open to change. Agreeing with the ability to change, Natalie Angier, author of “The Changing American Family” in the New York Times uses examples of diverse families to show how the family unit is quickly changing. She questions, “…how about the Shulte­Waysers, a merry band of two married dads, six kids, and two dogs? Or the Indrakrishnans, a successful immigrant couple in Atlanta whose teenage daughter divides her time between prosaic homework and the precision footwork of ancient Hindu dance; the Glusacs of Los Angeles, with their two nearly grown children and their litany of middle­-class challenges that seem like minor sagas; Ana Perez and Julian Hill of Harlem, unmarried and just getting by, but with Warren­-Buffett-­size dreams for their three young children; and the alarming number of families with incarcerated parents, a sorry byproduct of America’s status.” All of these families have their flaws and difficulties, but each of these families have something special: each one is an example of different family types. Each is a difficult situation for those family members affected because of the separation or loss that comes with different family situations such as sickness or anger. To discover what people think of when they think of what a family is, Judith Burns, from BBC News, speaks about a survey that was taken to discover who thinks about what does and does not make up a family. One of the survey results showed, “eight in ten people thought their families did not conform to the stereotype of two married parents with two or more children” (BBC News). This shows that there is more diversity and changes in family structures than there have been in the past. Many families do not fit into the set mold of what a family is, according to someone with a more traditional view. There are many families who have one parent, two parents, no children, or many children.

Many believe that families exist to benefit the members and to show unity, something that is lacking from the world. Families are about working together through times of decision making, finances, and other subjects. David Crary, from The Washington Post, says, “How “family” is defined is a crucial question on many levels. Beyond the debate over same­sex marriage, it affects income­tax filings, adoption and foster care practices, employee benefits, inheritance rights and countless other matters.” If someone is a part of a family, they have a large life advantage. They can be promoted to a new position in their job, have better insurance, and expand their families by having children of their own, adopting, or fostering. Being a part of a family can give people a healthier lifestyle and have a happier life. Some are curious to know what young children think of when they are asked about family structures. To find answers, a group of children were asked about what they think a family is, and whether it is important or not. The children were also asked to pretend to nominate their mother and father for “mother of the year” and “father of the year.” In the Journal of Comparative Studies, Wei Qui and his team did these surveys. “Children were asked open­-ended questions including: Why do people have families? What does a mother do? What does a father do? They were also asked if a family could still be a family if they did not have a house to live in or if they did not all live together. They were asked if relatives, such as aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were members of the family.” All of the responses from the children contained a common theme of what they believed to be true about family, and of their own families. Many of the responses had to do with parental roles in families. Stephen D. Sugarman explains the roles of husbands and wives. He explains the family as it was in the 1950s. He tells the reader, “Many Americans who self identify with what is termed the “family values” crowd still idealize the stable nuclear family in which the husband works for wages and the wife stays at home and cares for the children.” This shares the intimate family relationships that people had in the 1950s and still sometimes have today. In many families, the husbands or men of the home have a job and earn money to support their families, while the mothers or women of the home take care of the children. However, that theory has changed as time has gone on. Women have gone to work, while the men stay home to take care of the children. There is also the possibility of having both parents work at the same time. It is not as traditional and normal as it was decades ago. Family makeups have changed, and who depends on whom has as well. Joel R. Agate, who wrote Family Leisure Satisfaction and Satisfaction with Family Life, explains the importance of happiness in familiar relationships. The happiness and satisfaction in a family unit leads to more support and stronger bonds. He explains, “Families today face many challenges within the family and in the social environment. Many view families as weak and troubled and as “demoralized” institutions. With families facing challenges, many people and organizations are working to strengthen the family unit.” Mr. Agate is proving that being a part of a family in this time period is difficult. Families try to be too much like what they see on television or shown in pictures. The family structure has its importance just like other necessities people need in order to survive. Social environments try to have families become what they should and, sometimes, should not be.

Family bonds are questioned during times of anger or discomfort, but these situations are what make families stronger. An example being from My Sister’s Keeper when Anna must confront her mother about the truth that Kate has been hiding. Kate has been sick most of her life, and she, just like her sister, is tired of all of the medicine, hospital visits, and sickness. Anna tells her mother about Kate’s wish to die by saying, “‘She couldn’t tell you.” I reply. ‘She was too afraid if she killed herself she’d be killing you, too’” (389). By telling her mother this, Anna is reaching a strong moment of mother­daughter bonding. Kate wants to die, and has tried to commit suicide. Anna, fortunately, has arrived just in time to save her sister’s life yet again. It is a harsh reality to be told that her own daughter does not want to live anymore. Luckily, Kate cares too much for her sister, mother, and other family members to let herself die. As the Fitzgerald family struggles with a lawsuit and cancer, they grow apart for a while, but fix their relationships in the end, causing them to be a trustworthy family. In a different situation, family members can sometimes betray one another or think less of each other unnecessarily. In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris, David tells the reader about vivid memories that stick out in his mind the most. All of them deal somehow with his quirky family that he can not figure out. David shares a sensitive moment of his life when he explains, “After six months spent waking at noon, getting high, and listening to the same Joni Mitchell record over and over again, I was called by my father into his den and told to get out. He was sitting very formally in a big, comfortable chair behind his desk, and I felt as though he were firing me from the job of being his son” (87). David’s experience of being kicked out of his parents’ home is difficult for him to handle because he later found out that the reason he was sent away from his home was because he is a homosexual. His parents do not like the idea that their son is not like them or who they want him to be. Although this upsets him to an extent of him feeling as though his father does not want him to be a part of their family, he pulls through, and later begins a strong relationship with his father once again. Marriages and family relationships are questioned at times by other family members or peers. Relationships struggle again in T he Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, when the protagonist, Archer, is set to have an arranged marriage. Throughout the novel, he encounters different family members and family friends. He questions the relationships, and how the families support their relationships for so long. After Mrs. van der Luyden announces Archer’s engagement at a family party, Wharton tells the reader, “She and Mr. van der Luyden were so exactly alike that Archer often wondered how, after forty years of the closest conjugality, two such merged identities ever separated themselves enough for anything as controversial as a talking­over. But as neither had ever reached a decision without prefacing it by this mysterious conclave, Mrs. Archer and her son, having set forth their case, waited resignedly for the familiar phrase” (33). The van der Luyden’s, who have been married for forty years, are still close, and rely on one another for making decisions. Archer does not believe it can be possible because he has never had a relationship like this one in his life. The agreements and disagreements that arise over the family members explained in each book seem to disappear over time.

Keeping the traditional family alive is important to many people because it allows no change to occur. Change is not favored by many because it is difficult to ruin a routine or a practice that has been the same since the beginning. Allowing no change to occur can please many people. Allowing a traditional family to stay the same way that is has been allows for more agreementthandisagreement. In the poem Mom, Dad, Sibling, Me, Baby, Dog, expresses what a typical family is like. It shares the personalities of parents, children, and even pets. Families differ, but this family in the poem is what people consider a traditional family. They each have a role and a funny talent, just like in today’s view of what a family is. No family is normal. The poet, Kenn Nesbitt, writes,
“My brother is good at burying/ his finger up his nose./ My sister’s good at covering/ her room with dirty clothes.
My father’s good at eating soup/ in big, disgusting slurps. My mother’s good at cutting loose/ with world­record burps. Our dog is good at piddling/ in the back seat of the car. The baby’s good at putting/ Pop­Tarts in the VCR. Myself I’m good at sleeping late/ and making lots of noise.”

Although this poem is humorous, it has a meaning behind it. The narrator of the poem tells the reader about his/her family in ways not many people express their families personalities. The boy or girl in this poem tells the reader about what a traditional family is or can be. A mother, a father, four children, and a dog are all apart of a family structure. This is an example of what many families look like in today’s world. ABC News has a similar view of what a family is. John Berman read The Census’s definition of family which is “‘A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” This is only one definition made up by a group of people. Many other people have their own interpretations of what a family is and why it exists. Many believe that if someone lives alone, they do not have a family. That is sometimes the case, but not always. Allowing there to be a traditional family allows for order in many peoples’ eyes. People try to expand their view of what a family is or can be, but everyone has yet to figure out what the new definition of family is. Will it include gay marriage, or not? Family matters to many people and impacts what decisions are made. Although, keeping the traditional family structure alive is difficult, according to Judith Burns from BBC News. She explains, “There were interviews with 3,000 people for the inaugural report from The Centre for the Modern Family, launched by insurance firm Scottish Widows. The report indicates that family structures are becoming increasingly diverse. A quarter of couples are childless and a fifth of the population lives alone.” Family structures are not the same anymore. Not every family includes two parents or children. That does not mean that they are not families. Politicians and media have a large impact on what can be or not be a family, which causes problems with many family members and those who do not agree with what is changed.

Boundaries should not be set up by the government nor media to distinguish the difference between an acceptable and unacceptable family. There are aspects of family life and defining family that some disagree with. They believe that families should only be made up of a man, a woman, and their children. People believe that same­sex marriage or same­sex couples should not have children. They believe that any other families that are not traditional and the same as they were in the 1900s are not acceptable. The nontraditional families do not fit into the category of being a family, according to some. When a survey was taken to discover who is considered a family, results stated, “Thirty­-three percent said a gay male couple was a family. Sixty­four percent said they became a family when they added children. That number was fifty­four percent in 2003. ‘People right now are reevaluating their views about same­sex couples.’ Powell said. In 2006, just over half of Americans surveyed ­ fifty­one percent said pets were part of the family” (ABC News). Views of family are changing everyday, but some are people who grew up with or around traditional families still want to have every family be the same. However, by allowing same­sex couples to be considered and called families allows for more equality and acceptance. There do not need to be barriers put up to exclude what a family is and what a family must not be. It is unfair to those who are satisfied with their own, personal familystructure. As Andrew Forshee from the International Journal of Childbirth Education believes, those who disagree that the diverse and different family structures are to be families as well is not acceptable. He states, “Yet despite often polarized views and opinions on contemporary family structure, non­traditional families (i.e., those families that shatter long­-established nostalgic images and caricatures) , are emerging front and center. Essentially this requires a conscious effort by turning off the “autopilot” of sex and gender, viewing each family as unique, dynamic, and legitimate.” There should be no separation of family dynamics. Every family is different, and should continue to be. Although the traditional family is starting to disappear, change in the family environment is beneficial. Today, families are changing. Not all families consist of one man, one woman, and children. They may contain one parent, one child, or however the person chooses to live their own life. In the New York Times, Natalie Angier talks about the diversity and change in families. Families are no longer simple; they are complex. She states, “Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously, and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago ­ than even half a year ago. In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows.” There are criticisms of marriage and family life, but those who choose to live life to the fullest, are the most happy a lot of the time. Families are changing rapidly. Being apart of a family in today’s society is what people want it to be. Traditional or nontraditional, there are no limits.

Family is defined by many as those who have unconditional love and who someone can put all of their trust in. Families are important in today’s world because having someone to count on and have in life is essential. Families can be made up of parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, or even friends. Family opens new opportunities and allows for unity, something the world does not see often. Families do not need to be criticized because they do not follow the path of being traditional, as many may put it. They may not be the most ‘natural’ family, but it is what someone chooses for their own life. People are free to make their own decisions of what their family structure looks like. Politicians, peers, and media should not have a say in what is or is not a family. Family is a personal choice. Although families go through difficulties and everyday struggles, they stay together to be the support a family needs. Whether someone’s family is modern, traditional, or different, it is still a family. When no boundaries are set as to how a family should live or what a family should be, that is when there is a true definition of family.

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Finto 13

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