Families no longer fit a mold
The definition of family isn't just academic. It affects every aspect of life, from legal issues like child custody and hospital-visitation...
Seattle Times staff columnist
The definition of family isn't just academic.
It affects every aspect of life, from legal issues like child custody and hospital-visitation rights, to social relations. Can you walk down the street without being stared at? A couple of days after the state Legislature passed a domestic-partnership bill, I listened to people talk about their families as part of a conference at Seattle University.
"Intersections of Race and Gender: (Re) Imagining the Family" explored places where race, class, gender and other attributes affect what we call family. Academics from SU and elsewhere shared research, but I found their personal stories just as telling.
We've heard some of what they were saying. We know families are changing shape.
But we don't act like we know it. We keep getting stuck on one version of normal.
Flora Wilson Bridges, an associate professor in the SU School of Theology and Ministry, described the picture of family she got from her first schoolbooks.
There was Father and Mother, Dick, Jane and baby Sally. They had a dog and a cat. Mother was blond. Father was tall with brown hair. He wore a suit and had a job. She baked and looked perfect.
Wilson Bridges' family didn't fit that mold. Sometimes black families have a broad embrace. Until she was grown she didn't know that some of her uncles weren't actually blood relatives.
Literature professor Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs gave the example of a couple who brought six children across the border from Mexico and raised them as their own. They created a family but not the textbook way.
Ruth White, an assistant professor, said legal definitions of family can get in the way in her field, social work.
When she worked in San Francisco she sometimes had to place children far away because too many homes in the city didn't fit the suburban ideal codified in the law.
White talked about reactions to her own family. Her black daughter and her girlfriend's two blond girls call each other sister.
Curious strangers ask about their relationship and are surprised when the girls say they are sisters. Aren't families one color, and where's dad?
But she said only 25 percent of U.S. households consist of a married couple with children.
Phoebe Jewell and her partner, Dawn Mere-Ama, are white. Their adopted son is black. In public, people feel free to quiz them. "Is he yours?" they ask.
A man at Seattle Center once exclaimed, "Wow, that little boy is so lucky. He has two nannies."
Race has overshadowed gender in people's reactions to them. Jewell and Mere-Ama moved from West Seattle to Columbia City so their son would have a more diverse community. The African-American man who owns the gym where they work out has become a grandfather to their son.
Their son's younger brother and sister have been adopted by friends of theirs, a heterosexual couple. The friends plan to move to Seattle soon from Tacoma. The kids will be part of a large, diverse family.
See the family. See them smile. See them thrive.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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