“Why did you come to the Netherlands? Did you come for love?”
That’s how many conversations start when encountering an ex-pat here. Why is love the first thing that comes to mind? I guess statistically these are a lot of the stories.
A lot of people move countries for love, I actually did not come to the NL for love, It was in fact after a breakup. I came alone, brokenhearted, and willing to start a new life.
I also didn’t come to the Netherlands temporarily, I came to stay, I was determined to immigrate. My emigration journey started in Australia and went through South Africa, Crete, and England. In all those countries I have tried different ways of living.
The part that is usually most difficult in an immigrant life, is the lack of family/friends. In my case, I moved alone, and at the late age of almost 40, I was on a mission to make new friends and create a new tribe for myself.
This mission may sound familiar to people who know the term ‘chosen family’. Chosen family, or family of choice, describes groups of people who are not blood-related and choose to behave as a family unit. The term became popular in the ’90s when people in the LGBTQ community experienced ostracisation or being disowned by their families of origin upon coming out. Families of choice are also familiar among groups of veterans, supportive communities overcoming addiction or childhood abuse, and friend groups who have little to no contact with their biological families.
Since the ’50s, the term ‘nuclear family’ which describes a family unit of 2 parents (a mother and a father) and their children, has been steadily eroded. In 2021, for comparison, only 18% of US households were nuclear families, the fewest since 1959. 1
What happened in these last decades, that made society change so much? What do families look like nowadays?
Some of the changes to the nuclear family structure can be seen in these depictions:
- Divorced couples who raise children in separate households, sometimes having another family, which creates an extended, blended family.
- Lone-parent families, people who raise children solely (the vast majority in the US (81%) are mothers, and 19% are fathers). 2
- LGBTQ couples who adopt, use surrogacy or sperm donations and build non-heteronormative families.
- Queer and other groups of people (described earlier), choose their own families and create communities.
- Non-monogamous relationships, having different partners at the same time, some of which are nesting and with children, some not.
- Platonic relationships are considered as family, for example, friends who cohabit and raise children together without a romantic or sexual relationship.
- Eco-villages and communities who live together as a group and where everyone raises the children together.
- Co-parenting contracts, for example, are for when two people choose to raise a child together with a contract, instead of having a romantic relationship or living together.
- And of course, some child-free people create their families as mentioned in all ways above, without having children.
I belong to the last group. Throughout my travelling and experiences of different ways of living, I have strategically searched for communities knowing that support and connection are some of the pillars of human well-being.
I didn’t know whether I would have children or not, all I knew was, I want to live my life in a community.
Families vary from one society to another, but there are patterns across cultures linked to economics, religion, and other cultural and environmental factors. In anthropology, it is believed that the family is a microcosm of its society.
Speaking of western cultures, the family structure was mainly patrilineal, perpetuating a power structure in society. In the eras before and in the early decades of the 20th century, men were the authority of the family unit, acting in the public sphere; women were directed to manage the household in private and were excluded from the public sphere. Children, especially sons, served as a workforce and were destined to continue their father’s legacy, carry the family name (surname) and sometimes their business. 3
We are now living in times when people can choose their family structure. Theories arose explaining why such a change took place such as secularisation, legal changes and technological advancement. In my opinion, these three social theories are the main causes:
Feminism – Feminist theories and actions started with the industrial revolution and continued in different waves to affect our lives. Initially, feminism brought women into the public sphere, through many activist movements, giving them rights to be considered the same degree of citizens as men (public speaking, voting, political positions, having a credit card in their own name, and executive roles). Production of food and care for the children, sick and elderly, which was primarily the role of women, was taken out of the family unit and delegated to newly established public institutions.
Critical race theory (CRT) – The study of critical race theory brought up the injustices and structural racism that are entrenched in many of society’s institutions. Family scientists are researching the connection and effects of policy and workplace culture, the housing market, tax policies, laws, and health associations on the well-being of the family unit, specifically in non-white families. CRT is a call to action to create a more justice-based, action-oriented discipline of Family Science. 4
Queer theory – Throughout the 1990s the subject of alternative kinship and queer theory has been brought up in social science. Kath Weston, associate professor of anthropology at Arizona State University West in Phoenix, published the book Families We Choose, which is an anthropological study of lesbian and gay families in San Francisco. The book was ground-breaking for the subject of queer studies. The book explores how these families are built on different understandings of time, space, kinship, and all of these outside the traditional, heteronormative and nuclear family structure. The study and activism around this subject later brought a legislative change. In 2012, a bill in California passed that allows up to four parents to be on a child’s birth certificate. 5
Growing up, I believed in the notion that children are ‘the fruit of love’ between a romantic couple. Yet, my environment changed this view a lot.
I have witnessed friends going through ugly divorces after 1 or 4 children. I have accompanied friends who decided to have a child on their own or co-parent with someone they are not in a romantic relationship with. I saw friends in the LGBTQ community create their family units with 3 or 4 parents. I heard from friends who opened their life to non-monogamous relationships and how it affected their families. There were many manifestations around me of forming families, and in my own family, it happened as well. My sister had my niece with 2 men who are married to each other. They raise their child together in separate houses. My niece divides her time between her parents as if she was born to divorce, only she was born to a loving family who chose this way to live. Since then, my nephew joined the family as well. My nephew was born from an egg donation, via a surrogate woman, to his 2 fathers who raise him and my niece. Is this confusing? To me, no, but sometimes when I explain, I get that people are perplexed; this is one of the furthest iterations from the nuclear family as we know it. For my niece and nephew, this is so natural, they are living their best life, and it seems as if it only confuses some adults around them. Though it may not be the norm in all areas, in the proximity of my niece and nephew, a lot of other families are similar (a mother and 2 fathers, single mothers, same-sex parents).
In a culture with a strong pro-natalism agenda, most people, especially women are taught that procreation is one of their missions in life; and is the route to a meaningful life.
I realized that for me, having a family does not necessarily mean having my own biological kids but sharing my life with people who are close to me.
Now, that my travelling period has ended and I ground myself, growing roots in my new home, I am focused on creating and choosing a family. How about you? How do you experience the term ‘family’?
4 https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/fall-2021 &
https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/fall-2021/work-family-conflict-racial-justice-issue & https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/fall-2021/racialized-housing-segregation-and-structural-oppression-black-families-understanding-mechanisms