The proportion of childfree women in the UK has doubled in a decade, so isn’t it about time we redefined what we mean by family? Here, Kiran Sidhu shares her thoughts on the stereotypical definition of family, and explains why her friends have always been her tribe.
In 2016, I was at a family wedding in a small village in India. I enjoyed the exuberance of the celebration; I spent it wrapped up in swathes of colour, transported by the hope and optimism that weddings usually exude.
However, among all of this, I was a black dot – a full stop. An unexpected fascination followed me in the week I was there: I was childfree, and even more shockingly, I was OK with it. I told no tale of a broken heart or a lack of purpose. Instead, I was leading a flourishing life that nourished me. Unashamedly, I was asked why my heart was not broken by the absence of children in my life. I replied that the broken heart belonged to them, and not to me.
This suspicion towards women without children is not restricted to my Indian family. There is a societal assumption that those without children should be pitied or considered selfish. But the latest studies show that the number of women who never have children are on the rise, with the proportion of childfree women in the UK doubling in a decade. And if more and more women are remaining childfree, shouldn’t this give rise to a radical rebirth of what constitutes family?
Our current idea of what makes a family still fits inside the traditional mould: a mother, a father and children. But with the introduction of same-sex marriages (with same-sex marriage finally being legalised in Northern Ireland this week), coupled with the increase of women remaining childfree, this traditional view is now archaic. Our family is no longer restricted by our DNA.
Those who choose not to have children are sometimes seen as ‘selfish’, as if we are too self-obsessed to look after another human being. Once, at a family party, a relative asked if I was too busy in my ‘own affairs’ to have children, blatantly suggesting that my childfree life was based on selfishness. But many people have a family because it gives them a greater sense of ‘self’, so it’s ironic to suggest that those who choose not to have children are selfish.
But we often find our greater sense of ‘self’, a reinforcement of who we are, in shared values and beliefs. And this doesn’t always come from our family.
I come from a conservative culture. As a liberal, my worldview couldn’t be more different to that of many members of my family. I’m a black sheep. If family is made up of people who give you a greater sense of self, helping you to forge an identity, then my values are far more reflected in my friends.
Greek philosopher Aristotle regarded friendship so highly that he once said: “without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods”. He believed friends hold a mirror to each other, and through this mirror, they see each other in ways that would otherwise be inaccessible. This mirroring improves us as people and is essential to our self-development.
Friendships enrich our lives and are an integral part of what Aristotle calls the ‘good life’. A recent study found that our friendships could make us happier and healthier than our families, with the study author, William Chopik, stating that friends are often less judgmental, and provide good sounding boards. Friends are a chosen family, which makes them more revealing of who we are, compared to the families that we are born into.
Of course, friendships can carry baggage and have their own dark sides, but they’re easier to leave than toxic blood relationships. The sentiment that ‘blood is thicker than water’ is based upon the assumption that members of your family are benevolent, reciprocal of love, supportive and without envy. Essentially, it assumes that all families are functional. In actuality, families can be rapacious, mean and stifle personal growth.
The very concept of blood being thicker than water gives family members a sense of entitlement earned by blood. Attempts to walk away from blood relations are more often than not followed by cries that ‘they’re your mother/father/brother/sister’. Whereas if we were in a toxic relationship that wasn’t not bound by blood, the emphatic advice would be to walk away.
In 2020, the nature of our social glue has evolved – we’re now far more socially and culturally determined by friends than ever before. Friends are the new definition of family.
As a childfree woman, I am boundless. I know many women with children who talk not-so-openly about the sacrifices they’ve had to make, and not just careers. There are countries they have wished to live in, but couldn’t; husbands they would’ve left, but couldn’t. And that’s absolutely fine, because we all make sacrifices for the things we really want. But society, I feel, fears the boundless woman, especially if she’s without children.
There’s a freedom to the childfree woman that we’re still scratching our heads about. An aunt asked me what I do with the copious amount of free time I must have. A friend suggested I must have a healthy bank balance. Both of these remarks were essentially comments on my freedom – the freedom to do and the freedom to be.
The non-sacrificial woman is an idea we are still not comfortable with. It’s a bit like when the contraceptive pill was introduced in the 60s – the idea that women could shape and own their future was seen as both remarkable and disconcerting.
Ultimately, we are all on our own. No matter how good we are at empathising, we only really feel our own pain; just like we only really learn the lessons we make from our own mistakes. We can only experience life through our own lenses. Family or no family, we all find a place we make our own, from our favourite position on the sofa to our role at work. We make it our own and, crucially, we make it on our own.
Women without the traditional 2.4-family make their own families, using their own mathematical equations, which don’t add up for some. But we can and do lead notable lives: Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, Kim Cattrall. It’s all about what links you to this world, and that connectivity can be found in so many things: people, places, the clubs we choose to join.
We make our own families, and the difference is, we choose them. And these people are not just our families, but our tribes.
Images: Getty, Unsplash