The image of the nuclear family is ubiquitous in modern Western culture: it has been captured in countless photographs, immortalized in books and electronic media, and hailed as the foundation of an ideal society. And while on one level we may recognize that not every family is neatly organized with parents, children, and perhaps a dog or cat thrown in for good measure, it is nevertheless common for us to think of "a family" as a closed unit composed of those specific kinds of relationships.
Clearly, when one adult asks another, "Do you have a family?" they usually mean "Are you married? Do you have children?" However, as social psychologist Bella DePaulo points out in her 2006 book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, “there are, of course, other meanings of family.” This leads her to question why most of us seem to expect single adults to reply: "No, I don't," rather than “Oh, yes, I have a family. . . . I have a brother, a sister, three cousins, a grandmother, an uncle and two aunts.”
Increasing evidence confirms the importance of these family members. In fact, says Robert Milardo, researcher and author of The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles, "relationships among siblings are among the more resilient, long lasting, and intimate of family ties, and with the introduction of children, the roles of aunt and uncle are added to the mix of bonds linking siblings and their partners or spouses."
In a recent three-way interview, I had the privilege of speaking with both DePaulo and Milardo about many of the reasons why "collateral kin," such as aunts and uncles, warrant inclusion in our paradigms of family.
"The idea of a nuclear family doesn’t seem to represent how families really live," Milardo remarked. "Many do, but many do not. I think public rhetoric says families are organized that way. We often talk about them as unique households, but we really often live across households."
DePaulo agreed, adding that stereotypes of the nuclear family may be played out more in the official display of family, such as in photographs or at public events, rather than in a family's actual practice at home. "You and your 'significant other' may be invited to brunch, or whatever the occasion might be," she offered by way of an example, "but 'significant other' is understood to mean a romantic relationship partner. Well, if I live near, or even with, a sibling or a grown niece or nephew and they are very close to me, why should that person not have the same standing as a boyfriend I may have been involved with for one month?”
Indeed, DePaulo and Milardo each note that the remarkable invisibility of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and adult siblings in public life is inconsistent with their equally remarkable importance in the private lives of many families.
"To be sure," acknowledges Milardo, "not all families are in frequent communication, but then not all exist as isolated households. One need only recall travel patterns on major North American holidays to confirm this."
Those who are not fortunate enough to live near blood relatives may also burst the somewhat artificial boundaries of the nuclear family by cultivating relationships with "chosen" kin: close friends who for all practical purposes fulfill the roles of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Moreover, physically far-flung relatives may not actually be all that "distant" anymore, thanks to the advent of social networking sites like Facebook. Whatever the drawbacks may be of such technologies, they have nevertheless been found to foster those exchanges of the small details of daily life that help family members to feel connected to one another.
Research into the importance of collateral relatives (including chosen kin) still has a long way to go, but it is encouraging to see that DePaulo, Milardo, and others are well on the way to opening at least a small window into these too-often neglected family resources.