Creating a family
What is family, anyway? Like motherhood and apple pie, we regard family as an absolute good, something we would literally die to protect. The is a universal symbol of pity. We would probably rather be homeless than family-less, for we know how to create a home, but how do we go about creating a family?
When we think of family, we usually think of our parents, children, relatives, spouses, and very close friends. When we say, “he’s family to me”, we mean it as a very special compliment. By family, we generally mean those people who are related to us by bloodline, marriage, or friendship, who have participated significantly in our development, and who give us unconditional social, psychological, spiritual, and financial support. In short, we love our family, and they love us.
Another way of saying this is that by we mean those people with whom we have a long-term relationship. The following relationships are generally considered to be long-term: mother, brother, aunt, daughter, husband, wife. The following relationships are generally not considered to be long-term: teacher, boss, partner, baby sitter, roommate, neighbor.
Within a long-term relationship, we can make long-range plans. One of the most important of these is , especially the propagation of a specific bloodline within a species, such as . Parents, children, and spouses all cooperate to perpetuate their blood line. Let’s call this the . Thus the basis for the biological family is genetic or sexual.
Long-term relationships can form the base for other long-range plans as well, such as building a house, changing careers, relocating, and saving up for old age. If we were to make a career move to another state, we would probably expect our children to move with us, but would probably not expect our neighbors to do so. Some of the following family expectations might seem familiar to you:
Who raises your children?
- Who would raise your children if both parents died?
- Where do you spend your important holidays?
- Who would you call to post bail?
- Where would you go if your life fell apart, leaving you helpless, homeless, or broke?
- Who would you consider supporting financially?
- Who would you consider taking care of in their old age?
In the past, these have been matters of the , that is, the biological family, plus neighbors, clergy, nannys, and anyone else participating in the family support network. In an old-fashioned extended family, you might ask your clergy for moral support, invite your neighbors to a holiday celebration, care for an aged nanny, or ask your local godfather to post bail. Those were the days of live-in uncles, too many relatives, and the front porch.
The Great Experiment
As our country grew, we expanded Westward in search of homesteads and new economic opportunites. At the end of World War II, we began a new experiment, called the . Parents and children left their extended family far behind, pursuing the American dream of a house with a white picket fence, far removed from any meddlesome neighbors. Disenchanted with organized religion, but attracted by the promise of the Partridge family and the Brady bunch, we attempted to go it alone, just you, me, and the kids.
In retrospect, the nuclear family has been an unmitigated disaster. We have a national divorce rate approaching 50%, and an abundance of broken families and absentee parents, not to mention higher crime rates, lowered educational standards, and increased drug abuse. Our philosophy of rugged individualism has led us to a national feeling of loneliness, distance, and alienation.
For many of us, our family may be distant, nonexistant, or otherwise unavailable. This is especially true for those of us who have no brothers or sisters, or who grew up in broken homes or dysfunctional families. Some of us may have chosen to have no children of our own. As we age, we will become empty-nesters, and begin losing our aunts and uncles, parents, and eventually our siblings and lifetime friends, through the attrition of disease and death. So for many of us who choose to share our lives with others, family will be something we build, rather than something we inherit.
Intentional communities vary greatly in the degree to which they can function as a family. Some share income and expenses, and can offer most of the financial support of a family, assisting career changes, furthering education, and even providing retirement facilities. Others are centered on interpersonal growth, and can provide much needed psychological and moral support. However, the answer to the question “How do intentional communities rate as a family?” is probably “Not very well”.
Our intentional community, Sharingwood, is a cohousing community. Cohousing communities are made of individual households, and a household is most often a nuclear family or a single adult with children. Some households have renters, but they are generally not considered part of the householder’s family. While some resources, such as canoes, hot tubs, and video cameras, may be shared, significant expenses, such as houses, cars, and college educations, are generally not shared, and income is not shared at all, except within a household. Any household which suddenly finds itself without income would probably be forced to leave the community. .
Ask yourself what happens to your community during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Do people celebrate these holidays together?
- Or do they have a pre-holiday celebration, and then scatter to join their families?
- Is it difficult to hold common meals or general meetings during these times?
- How about summer vacation? Does the community have one together, or do people scatter to take separate ?
- When people leave the community, is it a shared decision, or do they just announce one day that they are going?
- Who do they offer to take with them?
- If both parents die, who takes care of their children?
- Do most parents find godparents within the community?Very few intentional communities are real families. Most of them, however, work well as a , that is, a cooperative but heterogenous collection of families. When you hear the lament “I wish we had more community around here”, you may be hearing “I wish we were more of a family around here than a tribe.” This leads us to the question “How do we create a family an intentional community?”
Creating a family
One powerful shortcut to creating a family is to marry into an existing family. By attaching ourselves to a specific bloodline, we become de facto members of a new family. For example, If our son brings a total stranger home and announces “We’re going to have a baby!”, this stranger will likely become part of our family very quickly. A new lover is likely to make the transition to family more quickly than a new friend. In general, we recognize that the intimacy of a sexual relationship can lead quickly to family.What about friends? Like the word community, the word friendship covers a lot of diverse territory. Some friendships can outlast marriages, and we are usually careful to distinguish between just friends, good friends, and best friends. Like good lovers, good friends can also make the transition to family. Unlike lovers, however, few of them ever become live-in family. Before we look at live-in relationships, however, let’s take a brief look at intimacy and intention.
Intimacy and intention
Instead of looking at the depth of a relationship, let’s consider its volume, that is, its length, breadth, and depth. Relationships grow stronger as experiences are shared, and the strength of a relationship can be roughly measured by the length of time we have shared, the breadth of experiences we have shared, and how deeply we have shared them. A weekend seminar, the group equivalent of a one-night stand, has some breadth, and some depth, but not much length. Growing up in a small town can mean sharing a great many experiences with other residents, at some length, but generally without much depth.Living together with another person provides an opportunity for sharing a great many experiences. In addition to birthdays, personal crises, life transitions, and the rest, we can share breakfast dishes, daily newspapers, and spectacular sunsets. This breadth of experiences is generally not available to long- distance friends or lovers. However, just because we can share a great many experiences does not mean we will share them, or that these shared experiences will have any significant depth.
Many of us have had the experience of living with an absentee roommate. Roommates are generally not family, nor do they wish to be so, and a beautiful sunset may not be able to compete with a bowling night. What separates live- in friends or lovers from mere roommates or housemates is the intention to be family. Without this intention, experiences are not shared, and the co- habitants fail to become family.
From this point on, we will call a group of friends or lovers living together with the intention of forming a family an intentional family.
The intention to form a family requires the commitment to do so. Not all shared experiences will be pleasant. Washing the breakfast dishes is one experience; not washing them is another. Commitment means hanging in there through the unpleasant experiences so that we are available to share the pleasant ones. It is the commitment of friends and lovers within an intentional family that enables it to strengthen and grow, and thereby to support long-range plans.
Living together as an intentional family also makes good economic sense. Some of the same factors that reduce the cost of living in intentional community apply in miniature to intentional family. Friends and lovers living in an intentional family can share food, clothing, cars, magazines, the washing machine, the bathroom scale, and, quite literally, the kitchen sink. Because living together in the same house greatly increases opportunities for communication, it is probably easier to share some resources, such as cars, in an intentional family than in an intentional community.There is another economic reason for creating intentional family. At the end of World War II, one adult could afford the mortgage on a home. Typically, the father worked and the mother stayed at home and raised the children. Nowadays, it takes two working adults to afford a home, and in most nuclear families, both parents have jobs. Presently, it will take three working adults to afford a home. We are already seeing adult children returning home to live with their parents, and more households than ever are taking on renters.
While the relationship of adult children to their parents can vary, the relationship of landlord to tenant is seldom a pleasant one. There is no commitment to share experiences, and no intention to form a family. Problems arise whenever the landlord sets policies, telling the tenant what to do or not to do. The landlord is generally empowered to evict the tenant with only thirty days notice. This is hardly the basis for a long term relationship.
When landlords and tenants live together, the situation is even worst. Having no intention to share experiences, they live mostly separate lives, relating only through conflict and control issues. As for owning a home, the shared income, talents, and resources of an intentional family can give it an economic edge over the nuclear family. Cohousing has often been criticized as being unavailable to low-income families and people who are living simply. Rather than looking for government subsidies, cohousing groups can encourage singles and couples to come together by designing and building group houses. Intentional family is an ideal way to share the ownership of and to live within these group houses.
We have defined intentional family as friends and lovers living together with the intention of being family. Why lovers? We have already seen that a sexual relationship is a shortcut to intimacy. This, however, is not the primary reason why loving sexual relationships should exist within an intentional family.One of the more destructive forces in intentional community is the need for its members who have not found a loving sexual relationship inside the community to seek this relationship outside the community. A community may suddenly find itself with members whose time, attention, and energy are being spent primarily outside of the community. Or the community might find itself living with the lovers of its members, who may or may not participate in the community, and who do not necessarily share its values.
Some intentional communities may choose to confront members who are no longer actively contributing to the community, or who have taken live-in lovers whose values differ substantially from those held by the community. Unfortunately, the result of this confrontation is all too often that the community loses a valued member. And while a community of forty adults can probably survive the loss of a member, an intentional family of four would be severely disrupted.
Some of us may have had the experience of living platonically with a roommate who subsequently fell in love with someone else. Perhaps we didn’t see our roommate for weeks at a time, or perhaps we suddenly found ourselves sharing our non- smoking household with a smoker. In either case, we might have been tempted to find a new roommate or household to live in, if our roommate didn’t move out first.
To prevent an intentional family from being pulled apart by external relationships, it is preferable that loving sexual relationships be available within the family. Note that this is a preference, not a requirement. For example, two intimate couples could join together in friendship to create a very stable intentional family.
We have seen that intentional families are formed by friends and lovers who are committed to living together with the intention of making long term plans and sharing a lifetime of experiences. There are many challenges to be met in forming an intentional family in a society which legally and socially recognizes only the two-adult nuclear family. How do we find others to create our family? How do we make decisions and handle conflicts? Where do we go for advice and support? How do we create houses that are especially comfortable for intentional families? What existing legal structures might we use for ownership? How do we become socially acceptable?Our next generation will probably live in households of three or more adults, many of whom will be renters. Instead, we have a chance to pioneer a new social order which emphasizes family above household. This will take courage, persistance, and a sincere desire to share our lives with others.