Having just finished a draft of a chapter on singles-friendly workplaces, I’m back to thinking about family in the lives of singles who have no children. Family, in the contemporary American imagination, is linked to a particular kind of household – a nuclear family household, symbolized by the private home with a white picket fence.
As I’ve learned with just about every aspect of single life that I’ve studied, it helps to get out of the here and now and the conventional ways of thinking about things. So I’ve been reading and rereading other perspectives on households and families. Here I’ll mention just two highlights.
In her review of perspectives on kinship, Colleen Johnson includes a brief discussion of field research in Western African cultures. Most often,
“household compounds consist of siblings and their spouses…marriages are easy to dissolve, after which partners may return to their consanguineous families. Thus the stability of the family does not rest upon the stability of marriage but rather upon the solidarity of siblings.”
In a review article on historical perspectives, Stephanie Coontz notes how unusual our notion of family privacy is and how fluid households once were:
“…idealization of nuclear family privacy was a fairly recent historical alternative to a system in which servants, boarders, lodgers, or visiting distant kin moved more freely in and out of the household and in which little value was placed on constructing a special sphere of interaction for the married couple and their children.”
“…nuclear families were less central to people’s identity in the past than often is assumed. Sentimentalization of family ties, for instance, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Older definitions of family seldom distinguished the nuclear unit from unrelated household residents, and neighbors were sometimes preferred over kin as sources of aid.”
Personally, I don’t yearn to live in a dwelling that other people feel free to enter at will; I like my privacy. It is interesting, though, to think about how different it might be to be single if siblings mattered more than spouses and or if nuclear family households were not so sentimentalized.