Can you be a family of one?

A single woman explores what it means to be a ‘family’ and if she, alone, can call herself one
By Shannon Reed  Published on 04/30/2018 at 11:30 AM EST

As I scrolled through a friend’s wedding registry recently, I noticed the option to gift a lovely, artist-made sign that read “The Moore Family, Established 2015.” I purchased something else, but for the rest of the day, that sign haunted me. It was attractive enough that I wanted to have one made for myself, but I live alone, in a rented apartment, and am single, without kids or a pet. Am I a family?

If so, when was I established as one? I couldn’t decide. On one hand, as a 21st-century feminist, I’m almost laughably unwilling to deny myself any title I might want. On the other hand, to demand to be called a “family” by myself seemed to be a little insulting to my family members and friends-who-are-family. Besides, when did I become this so-called family: when I was born, when I moved out of my parents’ home at 18, or when I started living by myself, roommate- and pet-free, in 2006?

I decided to talk to a couple of my most thoughtful solo friends to see what they thought we should be called. First, I called on my friend of over 20 years, Mark Snyder, a writer who lives alone in Brooklyn. I asked him what he thought about the term “household,” which has been suggested as a more encompassing substitute for “family.” No thanks, he said: “I’m not really comfortable with the label ‘household’–I feel like that describes a group of people who share a living space and the responsibilities/expenses/lives that go along with that…Perhaps if I had an animal living with me, I would feel differently.”

My friend Amy Santoriello, who is the director of Faith Formation and Outreach at my church, Zion Lutheran in Pittsburgh, feels differently. “I use the term ‘household’ to make it clear that everyone is invited” to church events, she said. “Using the term ‘family’ too often is code for ‘this is for parents with young children.’ I want everyone to feel welcome.”

This was something that Mark sensed, too. He told me that the word “family” makes him “think of my partnered and married friends; there is a shift that happens when people partner up, where they shift the priority of their family focus from parents/siblings to their partner. So I don’t really feel like a ‘family’ of one either.”

However, Amy said that she “absolutely feels like a family.” When did that feeling start, I asked, interested since she lives in the same community as her parents while Mark and I do not. “Since I was born,” she joked, and then continued more seriously, “Since I moved out, I guess. I am a family by myself. I’m also a family with my parents and other relatives, and with my friends who are family. It doesn’t have to be a limited thing. You can be part of many families.”

These conversations made me think differently about that sign. I told Amy I might buy it to make a joke, and put my birth year as the “Established.” “Sure, why not?” she said. “It is funny, and might help people feel a gentle nudge to think differently about what they mean by ‘family.’” It was exciting to think that I might change societal norms and get to buy a sign I really liked!  

But Mark felt that purchasing it would be buying into society’s tacit way of defining “family.” He said, “I wouldn’t buy a sign like that. I feel like I march to the beat of my own drummer: I have very close friendships that mean the world to me with people that I can rely on in times of strife and hardship, celebration and joy, that don’t really fall into the traditional terms of ‘household” and ‘family.’” I saw his point, too, as extension of what Amy was suggesting: that the problem wasn’t that my life didn’t fit the sign, but rather that the sign wasn’t encompassing enough to fit mine. This realization might lower potential sign sales, but it was also freeing…and a little scary.

“I guess I’m a family of one,” Mark told me at the end of our conversation, sounding resigned. I agree with him: I guess I am, but it doesn’t feel great. To insist that the word encompass me too feels almost oppressive, cutting out too many people and potentials. Like Mark, I prefer to think of myself as marching to my own drummer’s beat. I’m drawn to what Amy suggested when she again emphasized that there are many kinds of families for whom the sign wouldn’t work: “I don’t meet the norms, but nobody does. Screw the Establishment.”

She’s right. Families grow and dissolve, and insisting that they encompass any specific criteria is hurtful. Yet families are also real and richly rewarding, the very best part of life, so it’s natural that most everyone wants to feel they are part of at least one, including solo people. I want to honor that instinct, so while I may not feel comfortable displaying a “The Reed Family, Established in 2006” sign, I feel renewed by these conversations to consider and embrace the wonderful possibilities. I am a family of one, and I also belong to so many other families, from my work, my church, my biological family and my chosen family of friends.

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