What does it mean when people say they want to “start a family”? Nine times out of ten, they mean they would like to have children. But why do we use the phrase “start a family” instead of “have children”? Is it children that actually make a family? Do people without children not have families? Do families only really begin when there are children brought into the mix?
The way we talk about something affects the way we think about that thing. Language isn’t just reflective; it’s also constitutive. In other words, our language plays a part in creating the reality of our experience. For this reason, I really take issue with this phrase “start a family”.
To make children the necessary ingredient for family is to erase and/or de-legitimize other types of families. If we truly believe that family can be something other than the nuclear archetype (and we should), then we also have to change our language to constitute and concretize that belief. There are many people who do not have children but do have families. And those families include neighbors, close friends, non-nuclear relatives, polyamorous partners, etc. This is not just an innocuous issue of semantics. There is a sense of social hierarchy in which those who have children are presumed to lead more serious lives with greater obligations than those who don’t have children. And while there are some unique experiences that accompany parenthood, I think we would do well to value–in equal measure–the challenges, commitments, and contributions of people who do not have children. Part of that requires seeing childless people as whole (and grown ass!) people who also have families (of whatever sort).