Re-thinking Family Values

Families like mine are the new reality in America. While pundits and politicians have used "family values" as an artificial dividing line in our nation, the kind of family they imagine is obsolete.
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A couple of years ago my father and I were out for a walk in Central Park while his husband Emilio was on the computer in my living room. Irene, a Mexican woman who works for me, arrived and was surprised to find Emilio, whom she had never met. His attempt to introduce himself to her resulted in this disconnected exchange:

Emilio: I am the husband of Sarah's father.
Irene: You are Sarah's husband?
Emilio: No.
Irene: You are married to Sarah's sister?
Emilio: No.
Irene: You are Sarah's brother?
Emilio: No, I am homosexual, married to the father of Sarah.
Irene: Oh!

Though this conversation took place in Spanish, English is no better for finding words that describes Emilio's relation to me. Emilio and I do not share the same blood, but I am certainly closer to him than many blood relatives. For us, the aphorism "blood is thicker than water" leaks with untruth and begs the question: why should I feel more connected to people related to me genetically? Bonds of friendship and love are built up through spending time together, communicating, and caring, whether related or not. A number of my friends have adopted babies, so I have been able to observe first-hand how those ties vibrate with the same kinds of agony and joy as those I have with my biological children. Even television shows like Modern Family have begun to reflect ways the family has evolved and reshaped itself over the past quarter-century. This year I will become a full-fledged empty-nester. Currently, I live with my son (now and then), my ex-husband's step-cousin and her husband, and my boyfriend (more now than then). This household I have created is a kind of family, linked little by blood -- mostly by love.

Families like mine are the new reality in America. While pundits and politicians have used "family values" as an artificial dividing line in our nation, the kind of family they imagine is obsolete. The first-marriage, still-married, heterosexual, genetic-children-only, no-other-members-present family does not represent the current American family. In fact, the two biggest recent changes in households are the rise in people living alone and an increase in children returning to live with their parents. The nuclear family of which they speak is not functional (if it ever was), and it has long imprisoned both men and women in traditional roles that make less sense than ever. We have to recognize that women want to be more than breeders and men want to be more than bread-winners. Many women who have embraced the homemaker role still find themselves at an economic disadvantage down the road, decades after we thought we had reached equal status in marriage, abandoned by divorce, death, illness. The traditional family has left too many women and children at risk, both economically and physically. Why is domestic violence the leading cause of injury to women? This is unacceptable. And violence within the family cuts across every socio-economic group, every national border.

Same-sex marriage is changing the family landscape. Thank goodness! Not so long ago, my father and Emilio had to go to Canada to get married. Now, my children and their friends wonder what the fuss was all about. Why would one's gender place limits on whom we love or whom we can marry? A radical re-thinking about family is here... long overdue.

Gender is a good place to start. As a young girl, I never saw my gender as a prison. I always felt that I could do whatever a boy could do and then some. As I got older and witnessed the injustice of men making more money for the same job, I was outraged. I hated the idea that being a woman would in any way limit what I could do. Where I see the most advanced ideas about gender now is with "Generation LGBTQIA" (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual or ally). Finally, the very idea of fixed gender is being challenged. "If the gay-rights movement today seems to revolve around same-sex marriage, this generation is seeking something more radical: an upending of gender roles beyond the binary of male/female. The core question isn't whom they love, but who they are -- that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation." ("Generation LGBTQIA," New York Times, January 9, 2013) A separation of identity from sex may seem far-off or far-out to many of us now, but it could lead to future generations of liberated men and women.

Moving beyond traditional roles is one step in learning how to value every family member. Over the past few years, I have seen more and more families struggle to make ends meet. If we truly value family as a society, we must support universal healthcare, childcare, and education. We must face the social and economic realities that are pushing more and more of our nation's families into poverty and violence.

As I think about what I can call my father's husband, I know that more than anything he feels like a brother to me. It is nurturing, love, and inclusiveness that define family rather than blood or "traditional marriage." My country is called the "United" States for good reason. I embrace this land where every citizen is part of a larger "united" family, and we are all responsible for each other, especially the sick, the elderly, the young, the poor. Real "family values" brings every individual into that fold.

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