How Should We Talk about our Family?

March 6, 2014

Childless individuals do not reproduce biologically, but they are part of a vast web of individuals.

 

It’s possible to see childless individuals at the end of the line. If we conceive of our relationship to each other as a single line, like the Tree of Jesse as portrayed in the stained glass window at Chartres cathedral, then the childless person is a dead end—leaving aside the exclusion of females from this patrilineal tree. The tree begins and ends, sharply contained and unidirectional, adrift in time from the rest of humanity.  The metaphor of the linear family tree puts progeny and ancestry at the center, to the exclusion of anyone else.

 

We could also see families as part of a branching tree, one that includes branches backward to include the line of mothers as well as fathers, a thickening set of ancestors that doubles every generation. Add in aunts and uncles, and the ancestors grow even denser. Add in brothers, sisters, and their children—nieces, nephews—and the individual becomes just one entry within an overwhelming rush of kin. In this view of the extended family, those without children are hardly alone.

 

But if we go even further, we might see that the most complete metaphor for our relations is the web. Some people are bound by biology, and others by common interest or shared sensibility, others by overlapping space where we live and work. These relations vary in terms of intensity, they can be positive, negative, or more frequently, emotionally complex. The hierarchies among them are harder to conceive than in the linear tree; how, precisely, might we conceptualize the relationship between our grandmother and our boss? Add to all this the fact that our network develops over time. We foster some connections, and allow others to lapse. New connections are made when we move to a new location, seek new circles, or reproduce. And they end, at least in terms that we can experience, as we move away, focus on others, or confront death. The metaphor of the web diminishes the impact of any one lacuna—including a lack of children—and envisions instead a growing, pulsating, multi-colored web of relations, its nodes winking on and off over time.

 

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