Australian Families: Who’s Counting?

I’m writing a chapter at the moment for The Research Handbook of Global Families (due out in 2019 – stay tuned!), which is, in essence, about how families cope, adapt and sometimes collapse when they find themselves internationally ‘on the move’. As I’ve been writing it, I’ve been quizzing friends and colleagues about how they define family. And I’ve been really surprised by some of the conversations that have ensued, so I thought I’d share them with you here.

Two Blokes and a Cocker Spaniel? Nope, Still Not a Family…

The thing that surprised me the most was that a lot of the Anglo Australians I’ve spoken to, across many generations, believe that “a family” is a couple with children. A single friend in her thirties told me, “I’m not sure why I think so, but I just can’t see a couple without kids as a family. We already have a name for that – it’s a couple.”

She continued: “It’s the addition of children that turn a couple into a family. It’s a boundary condition.” And then, after pausing for a long moment, she said, “I may not ever get to be a part of a family of my own making – I hope I will, but maybe I won’t – but me being sad about that doesn’t change the fundamental definition of what a family is. I think couples who call themselves a family are just renaming things to suit themselves.”

Although we’ve come a long way since Australian Ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating famously quipped that “two blokes and a cocker spaniel do not make a family”, it seems that the change here, amongst many Australians at least, is the (long-awaited) increased acceptance of same-sex couples (the stats back this up of course – more than two thirds of Australians support changing the legislation to allow for marriage equality…. And yet we still don’t have it…). People aren’t so concerned about the gender of a couple anymore, but the notion that a family could constitute two people (or less) still seems to be hard to accept.

To a large degree, this is enmeshed in Australian culture – from Peter Costello’s 2006 plea for Australians to have “one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country”, to the grief Julia Gillard was given for daring to imagine herself a possible leader of the nation when she was “deliberately barren”, to the Australian media furore surrounding Pope Francis’ declaration that people who choose not to have children are selfish (and will justifiably be punished by bitter loneliness in their old age), Australian society is still geared towards the notion of the nuclear family.

So, What About That Cocker Spaniel Then?

Unsurprisingly, many of my Anglo friends who won’t be having children feel differently (although again, they were in the minority, overall). Most talked to me about their “fur babies”, and bemoaned the lack of empathy from parents of human children when they needed to get home in order to feed their cat. Or when they couldn’t take a holiday because they couldn’t find anyone to take care of their dog, yet couldn’t take the dog on holiday with them either.

“If a parent says, ‘I’ve got to get going to pick up the kids from school’, no one blinks an eyelid,” one friend complained. “But if I say, ‘Sorry, I can’t make it, I’ve got to take Lulu to the vet’, I get eye rolls. Friends or colleagues think I ought to prioritise them over my dog, but Lulu’s family to me. And they’d never expect me to do that if Lulu was a human child. Well you know what? I don’t have a human child, I can’t have a human child, so why is my definition of family not enough for them?”

While it’s not uncommon to refer to animals as members of the family, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers have been more enthralled with how this might be possible. Is it that humans give animals personhood, bestow it upon them somehow? Or do our existing notions of what a person is already encompass certain non-human species, but not others? Donna Harraway, a professed anthropologist of the ‘post-humanities’, argues that the binary often used to describe relationships between humans and animals, versus humans and other humans, is unhelpful. In When Species Meet (2008, see an interesting review here) she implores her readers to view relationships, between any two entities, according to how ‘thick’ they are, how complex, how ‘messy’. She points out that when species come together, they begin to meld, over time, to become entangled in each other’s lives in a ‘dance of encounters’. Further, it is this entanglement that constitutes kinship, not some false dichotomy about species-specific love.

Family Outside the Western World

While we’re at it, can we take a moment to interrogate the very Western notion of the nuclear  family as the ‘natural’ family unit? In other cultures, family means some very different things. In a useful essay on the issue, Marshall Sahlins gives a ‘modest proposal for solving the 150-year-old problem of what kinship is…’ (2011 and it’s open source – yay!). He points out that while ‘blood ties’ may dominate Western thinking, it is just as common in some cultures for the most important kin relations to be about who lives under the same roof and shares the household’s food, who can and does marry who, or even who you choose as your kin. It’s really about the people in your life with whom you experience a ‘mutuality of being’, and the ways in which you and your ‘kin’, whoever they may be, live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths. He talks, for example, about the Trukese, who have a word that means, “my sibling from the same canoe”. It refers to the relationship that can form when someone goes through intense trials and tribulations with you (such as surviving a harrowing storm at sea when you are in a small canoe together – yep, I’d say that counts as intense trials and tribulations!). The Trukese can choose for a person to be their sibling when they feel that their bonds extend beyond that of an ordinary friendship. 

Even if Blood is Thicker than Water…

In another example, Janet Carsten in her 2004 book After Kinship (bits of it are available on Google Books), describes the way that her informants talk about blood ties. In Langkawi, Malaysia, the people say that you are born with blood and therefore you have blood relatives. But you also acquire blood throughout your life, by eating food that gets converted into the substances of your body. Thusly, if you are sharing food frequently with another person, then you are acquiring the same blood that they are acquiring, and you will end up becoming blood relatives via this process. Isn’t that cool? I love this idea. I find it so compelling, probably because it flies in the face of the way so many of us in the West cling to the notion of the ‘blood is thicker than water’ adage.

I guess all I really want to do, with this blog post, is point out that there actually are many different ways that people define family, all over the world, and that that’s okay. It doesn’t diminish the way you love your kin, whoever they may be, if someone else defines kin differently to you. 

As the marriage equality debate heats up in Australia AGAIN (really? Yes, really…) I think that message is perhaps more pertinent than ever.

[Image: “When Bedtime Comes” 1914, by Harry Whittier Frees]

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