nest branches
Photo: Gentl & Hyers
Every biologist, botanist, and zoologist will tell you the same thing: Nature loves variety. People may fear it, and some religious or political groups may hate it—but Nature loves it. The desert grassland whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens) forms female pairs. And these female couples reproduce...successfully. The anglerfish female is spiny, ugly, and so much bigger than the male that most humans don't even see him: the tiny little glob attached to the lady anglerfish by his teeth. She feeds him and after a while, he loses his eyeballs and she takes his sperm. Normal, among anglerfish. And don't get me started on the saddleback tamarins, monkeys whose families are composed of mother, father, offspring, and an "extra father" serving as mother's lover and nursemaid for the baby tamarin. (It's called cooperative polyandry, and if you're rushing to get to work while trying to feed the baby applesauce and keep it off your sweater, the life of a tamarin doesn't sound too bad.)

It may be that people are finally getting the idea. After years of pretending that Ozzie and Harriet's "nuclear family" (what an expression!) was the norm, we seem to have noticed that it was only ever really widespread among the upper middle class or in parts of the country so isolated and wild that not even mothers-in-law came to call. That vision had its brief and waxily shining moment, for a small portion of the population, for a very little while (by 1980, more women worked outside the home than didn't). For the rest of us, we realize more every day that each branch and twig of love that can be put to use to support our families, whether sprawling and far-flung or tiny and barely afloat, is necessary.

...Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken...

I used to think that Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 was about romantic love. I used to think that romantic love was the only kind that caused fireworks of the heart and deserved serious attention. Then I had children. I nursed people who were dying. I stood under the chuppah with my stepson's mother, at his wedding. Always elegant, always mischievous, she leaned toward me and whispered, "Oooh, they're all thinking, look how those two get along." And even if people didn't think that (I'm pretty sure they were admiring the handsome groom and beautiful bride and not the two nutty ladies chuckling in the corner), it was gratifying that in addition to this payoff for decency, there was even the glint of genuine affection. And my ex-husband's father threw an arm over my husband's shoulder as they strolled beneath the twinkling lights, discussing hockey's greatest moments.
It turns out that, if you believe in love, there are an awful lot of people to love. I don't mean just that you have the opportunity to love them, I mean that you'd better love them, even if your history with them is not so happy, even if they piss you off, even if they're practically strangers. My love for my children means that I have to love their father, too. I don't have to wish we were still married to each other, I don't have to be his wingman when he's single or his best man when he's marrying, but I do have to find a way to love him, because he is a good man, and a loving father, and he is still part of my family...and now so is his partner. My mother's love for me meant that even as she was mourning the end of my long relationship with someone she loved, at a time in her life when she was frail and tired and wanted nothing more than routine and comfort, she welcomed my future husband as if she'd been waiting for him and she welcomed his mother, too, happy for there to be more.

As the world gets bigger, families need to expand. Two mommies not only rely on the usual cadre of pals and relatives that all lucky people do, they are wise to attach a couple of necessary and loving male figures. The two dads often do the same, and every single parent I know has managed, through love and bribery and persistence, to create a network (and a safety net) for their small basic unit. This seems like a good thing, for all of us. For those of us in the more conventional units, these others who go out and forage for family are excellent role models, and sooner or later we would be wise to imitate them. Instead of lonely widows in condos, wouldn't a lot of us be happier four to a house, taking our chances on Susan's coq au vin and Thursday night poker? Mightn't the single mothers and four children be better off sharing a place, chipping in from two salaries for an au pair? It sounds practical, which it is, but it is also about love. Our capacity to love is not limited; time is a constraint and so is energy, but love that makes your life better gives you more of what you need.

Old-fashioned (whatever that is), or brand-new (to us), there is no kind of love and no kind of family we should ever turn our back on. Friends creating a household, people joining forces to care for elderly parents, single parents creating a little village, single men and women finding some passionate attachment to others, whether romantic or platonic: Let's throw open the doors in our lives to a variety of families, and gather up the whole beautiful, variegated bouquet of them.

More on Family


Next Story