There is a poster in an Edinburgh library I frequent with children's book style illustrations showing diverse families. As a matter of fact, these families are not very diverse, for either all or almost all of them feature couples and none of them show a crowd. I certainly didn't see a family with a mum and a dad and five kids, i.e. the kind I grew up in.
One of the points of the poster, of course, is to hammer home the idea that all couples are somehow equal: mum's latest boyfriend = auntie's husband of ten years = dad's civil partner Jack. Another of the points might be to reassure children that their own family is not weird, although I seem to recall one of the hallmarks of childhood is the strong belief that your family is weird.
One of the thoughts that troubles Single people is that they don't have families of their own. And I think this is due to the overemphasis placed on pair-bonding in the West because most human beings have families by virtue of having been born in one.
In the Catholic tradition, at very least, you're not somehow banished from the family when you grow up and move out. Catholic parents don't do a little victory dance, rent out your room and go on holiday to Florida leaving no forwarding address. And Catholic adult children don't intentionally move into The Zone, The Zone being defined by an ex-flame of mine as "Too far for your parents to drive; too close for your parents to spend the night."
I have been grown up, at least on paper, for a very long time. And I never had any children. I once felt the lack of a husband very keenly, and I still feel bereft about not having children, but I have never felt the lack of a family. I am an Adult Daughter, and an Older Sister, and an Aunt. And B.A., the Adult Son of a divorcee, was magically turned into the Adult Son of a married couple, the Brother of Five (including our sister-in-law) and the Uncle of a growing number of children. We are firmly glued into a tribe of Canadians, or maybe two tribes of Canadians, for my sister-in-law came with a sizable tribe of her own.
At the moment I feel rather nostalgic about these tribes, as they are across the ocean. My role as Daughter/Sister/Aunt can be further defined as Exotic European Daughter/Sister/Aunt With Interesting Guest Rooms.* But my nephews and niece remember who I am and are always happy to see me when I turn up in Canada, and would be ecstatic if Uncle B.A. turned up, too. Meanwhile one of my nephews and my niece live in the center of a network of grandparents, great-grandparent, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and nanny.
(My eldest nephew has a complicated relationship with his absentee father and so, unfortunately, does not live so snugly in the middle of intersecting tribes. Sadly, he's a little closer to the periphery, although this means, in fact, that he is a little closer to B.A. and me, who are also on the periphery.)
Traditionally children are born to married couples and where there are married couples there are children. This is still believed to be the ideal situation by very large numbers of people, including sociologists willing to risk their jobs by publishing their findings. It is very sad to miss out on the happy mother married to happy father family situation, and it is sad to be a childless married couple, unless you belong to the kind of married couple that has no interest in the parenthood dimension of marriage.
There is a parenthood dimension of marriage, even if you don't have children. Of course all adults are by definition called to be mothers and fathers of some kind--we talk a lot here about spiritual motherhood, although rather less about spiritual fatherhood--but I think there is something about marriage that makes spiritual parenthood more pronounced. You know, nobody called me Auntie Seraphic until there was an Uncle Benedict Ambrose.
This may be a bit of a stretch because I am talking about university students here, which makes them rather more like peers than children, but one facet of our ordinary married life is that B.A. and I feed and occasionally house other people's children. I very much enjoy this, and we're not the only childless couple we know who do this.
Given our relative young ages, however, I do not think the parents of the students would have been so sanguine about their beautiful young sons staying alone with worldly Single me, or their beautiful young daughters staying alone with tender-hearted Single B.A. But as it is, B.A. and I are married to each other and therefore more likely to be safe havens for the young, particularly as one enduring, almost cliched, value of permanent male-female sexual unions, i.e. marriage, (notoriously not necessarily shared by other arrangements) is fidelity.
Sexual fidelity between parents, be they legal parents or be they spiritual parents, and an understanding that this fidelity is permanent, is very much for the good of children. And so, of course, is the motherliness of motherly women and the fatherliness of fatherly men.
*Sadly, this means I cannot be as useful an aunt as I was when I was Single. I think I should stress that a Single Aunt can devote more of herself to her nephews and nieces than a Married Aunt because a Married Aunt by definition has to take care of her husband first. A Single Aunt has more freedom to devote herself to helping out with nephews and nieces, should she be called upon to do so. Single Aunts are potentially so valuable! And I'm so glad I could be a helpful Single Aunt when I had the chance.