Family-Friendly. Family Values. Family First. Ever notice how saying a word over and over eventually turns it into gobbledygook? Sometimes it seems that way with "family": we all use it, but what do we mean when we say “protect our families”? Or “have a family-friendly workplace”. More fundamentally, what do we mean when we say “family”?
You can consult the dictionary. Or you can ask the person next to you (the classification before genus and species in science, is what I got). You can ask the judge in the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage trial, once he rules. Or the folks who claim to ‘own’ Family Values. But when we in the progressive movement talk about reclaiming the phrase and ensuring workplace policies and laws that protect families, we’re mainly talking about households with children.
That’s important, to be sure. Feminists have worked for decades to make it possible for women to have children and careers, for both women and men to be able to stay at home with their children if that’s their calling and choice, and for laws and programs that make it possible to 'balance' work and family activities or needs. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.
And yet . . . how do you define YOUR family? Does it fit in to the movement? Are my family and the hundreds of thousands of other child-free families part of the calculations, the messaging and the efforts to change policies?
Here’s a test: think about the last time you were asked to identify and answer security questions on a website, perhaps hosted by your bank or an airline. How many of those questions assume you have a child, a partner (mind you, usually they say "spouse"), siblings? If you don’t have any of those, you’re usually stuck with “what street did you grow up on?” And that’s about it.
Of course we want good policies for families with children, and we want the needs of OUR families to be taken into account. Not having kids doesn’t mean we don’t need family leave, or to be able to leave work promptly even if we don’t have childcare obligations. Living with people other than biological relatives or intimate partners shouldn’t be a disqualification for having your family – as you define it – recognized and protected. Indeed, to truly value families and to put them first, we will have to engage in some serious, open and creative discussion about what we mean when we toss those phrases around.
After all, if my family is strong and healthy, whatever its composition, then my contributions to society will also be strong. So if what my family needs to be valued and strong is for me to leave work early to go on a hike, then that’s part of the equation also. Gotta go now: my kayak is waiting, and boy, does it feel neglected.