What’s a ‘Normal’ Family, Anyway?
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It’s a typical Thursday night and my family is gathered in the kitchen of my childhood home. There’s me, freshly returned from college, helping my mom set the table; my half brother, also home on break, debating our father about politics; and my half siblings’ mother chiding my half sister for Snapchatting with her high school friends.
If it took you a minute to process the relationships I just described, don’t worry — you are far from the only one. I’ll give my best simplified description of our family: my mother, my half siblings’ mother and our father were friends living in the Bay Area in the ’90s. At the time, both women were in their 30s and wanted to have children — but neither had a long-term partner. My father, a gay man and also partnerless, agreed to be their donor and, if things worked out, involved in their children’s lives.
My brother was born in March 1997, followed by me in October of the same year, and my half sister came along three years later. As a child I got strange looks when I told people that my brother was seven months older than me. But I just thought of us as a family that happened to live in three separate households.
Even growing up in Berkeley, Calif., which is generally known for being culturally diverse and politically progressive, my family structure has struck people as unconventional. I’ve had trouble explaining it to just about everyone, including friends I’ve known for years and financial aid administrators. It seems hard for people to get that you can have a family with parents who were never married, and that some women might choose to conceive and raise a child without a husband.
But unconventional families like mine are becoming increasingly common: the number of two-parent households has been in steady decline since the 1960s, dropping from 87 percent of households in 1960 to 69 percent in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. The report notes that “the declining share of children living in what is often deemed a ‘traditional’ family has been largely supplanted by the rising shares of children living with single or cohabiting parents.”
“I cannot count the number of times people have asked me if I want a ‘normal life,’” said Matan Inbar-Hansen, 20, who was raised in two households by three moms. “They think there is some objective ‘normal’ that I am not a part of, or that because my family is unconventional I have been raised incorrectly.”
But can anyone really say their experience of family was perfect? My parents have shown me that friendships can be just as important as romantic relationships, and that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life without defining your life by a single long-term relationship. How could that be bad?
Growing up with a gay dad, we were around many different L.G.B.T. communities in the Bay Area and knew many other people who for a variety of reasons had forgone the traditional structure in favor of chosen families. I also watched my half siblings grow up in a cohousing community. Seeing these models of intentional communities threw into relief the ways our culture can overemphasize the importance of a nuclear family structure.
“My family dynamic really affected my outlook on families and friends and love,” said Noa Kaufhold, 23, who grew up with several combinations of parents, siblings and pets over the years. “My house was always open to family friends who were going through difficulties. At any given moment we usually have someone that isn’t in my immediate family or their partners sleeping over at our house. It’s taught me a lot about sharing what I have, compassion and adaptability.”
Family should be, above all else, about love — I hope we can all agree on that. Perhaps it’s time for us to prioritize finding love through community and friendships in the same way many of us prioritize finding romantic love. Maybe one day that will be conventional.
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Let’s Figure It Out
Renee sent us a problem to figure out this week:
I’m planning on graduating from college one year early. I’m going to live at home and work. My family encouraged my decision, because I’ll save tuition money and start earning an income. But my friends warned me that I’ll get major FOMO when they’re enjoying their senior year and I’m starting my first job.
I’m concerned that they’re right and I’ll be socially depressed after graduating. My college is about four hours away from my home and my job will be long hours, so I won’t be able to visit too often. I hardly have any close friends in my hometown, and the friends I do have will be away at other colleges.
How challenging is it to adjust to working life after graduating? Do most new graduates make friends at work, or do connections stay professional (I think I’ll have a fair amount of young co-workers)? Also, how do I make new friends in my hometown? Should I just give up and hang out with my parents every weekend?
Alexandria Symonds, a senior staff editor, and Adriana Balsamo, a news assistant, weighed in on this week’s question. Alexandria wrote:
First off, a big congratulations on graduating, and on making what sounds like a smart, informed decision to do it early. I’ll bet you’re going to end up really glad you decided to take this route.
It’s great to hear you think you’ll have some young co-workers, and I’d say it’s a fair bet that they’ll also be open to new friendships. Lots of people I know, me included, made a bunch of their closest friends in their first jobs out of college. (And many made them elsewhere, which is also fine!)
Is there a college near your hometown? If there is, I’d recommend seeing if you can take a class for fun. You’re college-aged, so you’ll fit right in. Plus, maybe you could explore something totally different from what you focused on for your degree, without the pressure of affecting your G.P.A.
If you’re ready to be done with classes, I’d still recommend exploring some kind of structured activity: a book club, a sports league, a political group, a language conversation group, a church, whatever interests you. Other people who sign up for that kind of thing are often looking for people to connect with, too. (And thanks to the mere-exposure effect, if you just make a commitment to showing up someplace regularly, you’ve already done half the work.)
Also, if I can make one unsolicited suggestion: If you haven’t already, sit down with your parents and have one long, uncomfortable conversation about boundaries and expectations for your new living situation. It can be easy to fall back into the patterns you set when you were a kid, and I’ve known some people who ended up really frustrated with that dynamic after moving back home. (Or even, real talk, just staying a couple days too long at the holidays.) If you figure out now what you’ll need to feel independent and what they’ll need to feel appreciated, you can probably avoid some fights down the road.
There will naturally be times that you feel lonely or like you’re missing out. We are a generation that is plagued by this feeling constantly. So you’re likely to feel a bit of FOMO whether you’re working or in school. But I can almost guarantee that you won’t be feeling it while all your friends are stressing over exams. Nor will you have it when your friends are anxiously job searching a year from now, when you may be enjoying a raise or promotion.
All companies have different work cultures. Some are more conducive to making friends and others aren’t. You’ll just have to wait and see for that one. If there are work clubs or outings, you should definitely take advantage of them to get to know your co-workers.
Even though you are four hours away, you’ll be able to plan visits with your college friends for the big events — the ones that matter. But this is an exciting new beginning! Try your best to approach with a positive attitude.
Navigating college and the years afterward can be tough, but we’re here to help! Maybe you’re wondering how to choose a major, or the best time to study abroad. Perhaps you’re out of school and figuring out how to budget. Send us an email at [email protected] with the subject line, “Figure It Out.”
Claire Haug is a contributor to The Edit and a student at Smith College.
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