What is a family? (AKA – being sold a lie by the media)

I’ve seen a few posts recently talking about what makes a family, and, of course, I’m currently running a guest blog series on finding your family in children’s books, so I thought I'd add my personal thoughts to the conversation.


The topic of families and how they are represented is one close to my heart. Whilst I was raised in a very traditional family – mum, dad, older sister, dog and a cat – the family I have built for myself as an adult is less conventional. I’m a solo parent of a donor conceived child. A child I had alone; without a partner.


In some respects, it took me a while to come to terms with this way of making my family, but in other ways it was a very natural decision.


You see, as a child, I’d pictured myself growing up, getting married, having a house in the country and three children. Why wouldn’t I have pictured my life this way? That’s the kind of families I always saw in books. And, when I was older, the books I read always ended up with characters getting together or falling in love. So I assumed that this was what happened for everyone. And that this is what would happen to me.


So, as a young adult and finding myself particularly unlucky in love, I started to wonder what was wrong with me. All the characters in books and on TV found relationships. There must be something wrong with me if I didn’t or couldn’t.


But there was nothing wrong with me. I’d been sold a lie. The ‘happy ever after’ lie.


I’d always wanted to be a mum and I wasn’t prepared to let that dream go. So, at the age of 35, I started to put what had been a vague 'plan b', to have a child on my own, into action. However, I still thought there was something wrong with me for having to pursue this route to become a mum. Then one day I attended a seminar about this subject. I looked around at the 100 or so other women there and finally realised that I wasn’t alone. That there wasn’t anything wrong with me, or them, and that this was just a different way of doing things.


But this realisation wasn’t enough to counteract 15 or so years of on and off poor self-esteem, when I was out of a relationship more than in one. I imagine how differently I’d have felt about myself if I’d seen people who were happily single. Who stayed single, and lived life on their terms. Of course, we see lots of single women in the media, but they are usually looking for a relationship, unhappy out of one, and end up with someone in the end for that ‘happy ever after’.


The way I made a family is just one way. There are many, many other ways of building a family. My definition of a family is people who love and care for you. A family can be whatever you make it. It might be a group of friends. A couple. A family by adoption, a family with 2 or more co-parents (in fact, Charlie Condou’s column in the Guardian was one that opened my eyes to different ways of making a family), same-sex parents, grandparents raising kids, polyamorous families… the list goes on. It doesn’t matter what size a family is and who is or isn’t part of it. What matters is love, care and connection. As well as my family of two, we also have 'framily'. Our friends who are like our family - two other solo mums with only children.


My son often plays ‘mummies and daddies’ with his friends because he’s still presented this as the most common representation of families. The reason I have an issue with this is because it further reinforces a heteronormative society, not because he doesn’t have a dad himself. He wants to be a parent when he’s older, so this caring, nurturing play is important. However, we need to create space for children to naturally explore other options. Once, he and his friend were arguing because they both wanted to be the mum, which allowed me the opportunity to suggest that they could be a two mum family, like some of our family friends. But the fact that this hadn’t naturally occurred to them shows that there’s not enough representation.


Like I said, I was sold a lie by the media. And that’s not good enough. Children’s books need to positively and naturally show all different kinds of families. And I’m not talking about more ‘different kinds of families books’ but great books that just happen to have a non-conventional family at the centre, or even in the background (as long as they are in the centre in some books).


Children need to be able to see their own families, in beautiful and funny and loving and silly and sweet and future classic stories. In stories where the families just are (not where they are featured because of challenges they face). They need to see different kinds of relationships, including happily single characters, as well as asexual and aromantic ones. And they need to see the possibilities for the families and connections they might create for themselves when they are older.


Who or what makes up your family?


Family is just one of the areas we look at in my Inclusion Incubator and Foundations for Inclusion programmes which teach you the basic principles of inclusion and empower you to embed inclusion in any book you work on.


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Beth wearing a black, white and grey chequered coat and a black hat. She has a brown handbag and is holding a toddler with curly hair wearing a red snow suit. They are on a pebbly beach overlooking the sea.
Me and my son, NYE 2016


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