If you were to ask folks how you go about creating a family, the most common answer would almost certainly have something to do with marriage and sex. Sure, there are other ways to start a family, like adoption, but given that adoptions only account for between 2-4% of American families today, it’s no surprise that most answers to how families are made would have to do with sex. That’s how most people start a family, after all.
There’s one big problem with this, however. Sex makes babies, but sex doesn’t make relationships. Relationships take work. They require commitments and responsibility. They require communication and attention. That’s true of all sorts of relationships from friendships to dating to marriage, and it’s also true of parent-child relationships.
That may not sound like a shocking statement. Of course relationships take work. But consider for a moment the fact that nearly every relationship you’ve ever had, outside of family, had to be earned. Many people, certainly not enough of them, sought to build trust before they moved from a serious relationship to the commitment of marriage. Even in friendship, people gain and lose friends all the time, and often, those relationships hinge on traits such as loyalty and reliability and reciprocity. You get to choose your friends and dating partners, and you are likely to base those decisions on positive qualities. In fact, the only exception to this I could come up with was co-workers, but even those relationships hinge on certain expectations. You might not be able to get rid of a terrible co-worker as easily as you wish you could, but your co-worker still has responsibilities, theoretically, that they must fulfill in order to keep their job. There are still norms that, in general, usually demand your co-workers to a degree of accountability even your family probably wasn’t held to.
So, what makes the family different? What makes the parent-child relationship automatic? Is it really blood-relation?
The reality is this: we’ve been socialized to believe that if a baby comes from your womb (or your spouse’s womb), that automatically forms kinship. The baby becomes your child for no other reason, really, than the fact that it shares your genetics or made it. Of course, sharing genetics can be a powerful bonding factor. When a mother goes through the task of carrying a child to term, there exists the genesis of an emotional bond even before the baby is born. And yet, genetics, blood, or carrying a child to term cannot guarantee how “motherly” that mother may be to the child. Nor can it guarantee how present or active a role “Dad” will take. If it did, we wouldn’t need a foster care system. And with 35% of American children being raised in single-parent homes, we have to be careful about suggesting that biology or genetics make it more likely that the bonds of kinship are secure. They may be for one of those parents, but not necessarily for both.
So, if blood doesn’t make you family, what does? I think it’s worth noting that the word “conceive,” a word often used during pregnancy to denote family-making, shares synonyms with words like “imagine” or “think” or “understand.” I would add “choose” or “adopt” to that list. And I’m not talking about legal adoption. Sure, legal adoption is, certainly, one way to start a family. But think about what legal adoption symbolizes: it is a process by which a person voluntarily accepts, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting.
Not every parent has to go through that legal process. But every parent who wishes and deserves to be called a parent – a mother or a father – has to voluntarily accept, by choice, to take on the responsibilities of parenting. Or to say that more simply, if you want to be a parent, you have to “adopt” your kid.
That still may not sound revolutionary. So, I’ll close with a story to shed some light on what I mean:
Let’s say, growing up, Billy Bob had a set of terrible biological parents. They performed the menial responsibilities of parenting: they fed him, clothed him, gave him shelter. But Billy Bob was never really accepted. Maybe he was beaten. Maybe he was teased or harassed in an abusive way. Now that he is all grown up, his parents come around occasionally, making demands of him, still treating him as an afterthought rather than as their son. Billy has every right to stand up for himself, most would say, but he doesn’t. His reason? “They’re my Mom and Dad. What am I supposed to do? Get rid of them?”
The strong bonds of blood too often answers Billy Bob’s question with a firm “No. They’re your parents, and unfortunately, you’re stuck with them.”
Adoption answers such question by asking, “Have they earned the right to be called your parents, the same way all other relationships have to earn their keep?” To be fair, different people may answer that question differently. Perhaps their role in feeding, clothing, and sheltering Billy Bob is enough reason for him to feel the need to reach out and give way to their demands. But the point is, Billy has a choice. That’s what adoption puts on the table and it does so mutually. The harder Billy clings to the narrative that blood relation is what makes you kin, the less likely he is to realize that he does, in fact, have a choice not just on who he calls his parents but on the way he allowed himself to be parented – to be treated – the older he gets. Divorcing himself from the family is not easy, just like kicking a bad friend out of your life isn’t easy, but holding a family to stricter standards of what it means to be family – essentially forcing them to adopt you – could deeply redefine kinship in a powerful and positive way. And it could also widen the parameters of how large we might think our family is, as well.