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What Makes a Family?

By Isabel Kallman

This week’s column comes courtesy of Liz Gumbinner, author of Mom-101.

This past Sunday, if you had nothing better to do like say alphabetize your underwear by color or roll around in the rose petals strewn about your bed for Mother’s Day, you might have tuned into a show on NBC called America’s Top Mom.

While watching, you may have very well gasped audibly as they paraded out the nominees in a category called “non-moms”– the moniker given to those parents who had adopted their children. You know, non-moms; the ones who non-feed their children and non-clothe them and non-kiss their non-boo-boos with non-love, which may in fact be a laboratory-created chemical substitution for actual love.

It boggles the mind that not one of the writers, producers, hosts, sponsors, or network suits ever considered for two seconds how asinine the description was. (“Jennifer has one of her own children and SIX ADOPTED METH BABIES! Let’s give her a hand!”) Yet they didn’t. And so a slew of “non-moms” were introduced on network television to millions of households as just that.

I am amazed that with adoption on the front pages of even the entertainment rags of late, that families who come together this way are still perceived as such an oddity; an “alternative” family situation that needs description as such.

The myth of the mom and dad with their 2.3 biologically conceived children is so long past, that when I think of it, the only imagery in my head is in black and white. Granted I live in NYC, but my own relatively small circle of mom friends includes women who are single by choice, lesbian and single by choice, parents who have adopted, or simply those in committed domestic partnerships sans ring, as I am.

Even for me, it’s getting harder to answer the question, what makes a family?

Now here’s where things really start getting fun.

Yesterday the state supreme court upheld the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
The California ruling is fantastic news for committed gay couples of course, but also for their loved ones who no longer have to trek out to ceremonies in Massachusetts where you can’t even buy champagne after 11 if you run out. Most of all, I’m excited about the benefits for all the children of same-sex parents who will be impacted. These kids will be finally reaping both the legal and emotional benefits of parents whose relationship is now equal to any other under law.

Families are changing faster than we know how to define them. Faster than the board books, the Yo Gabba Gabba! segments, the third grade lesson plans can keep up with them.

At times I’m at a loss to answer even the most basic questions from my almost three year-old about relationships. I can’t fall back on answers like “A marriage is when a man and a woman…” or “Mommies are people who had babies…” I can’t even say “One day, when you get married, you might want to have a baby too.” Because maybe one day, she might want to have a baby and not get married. And provided she’s 36, that would be just fine with me.

So my question is this: How do you talk to your children about what constitutes a family? If you’ve got the basic mom-dad-kids combo in your own household do you still talk about it in terms of what other people do? Do issues like adoption, same-sex marriage or single parenting factor into the discussion?

And if so, can you swing by my house and help me out a little?

Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.


Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

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  • Amy

    May 16, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Since my kids are still small (4 &5)we keep it pretty simple. We have some gay friends who have a daughter through a surrogate so we talk about her two dads. (they haven’t asked about the surrogate yet). And one of the girls at preschool has dads so we talk about that. I’ll say something like “some kids have a mom and a dad and some kids have two moms and some kids have only one mom and no dad and some kids just live with a grandma and a grandpa”, and then answer any questions that come up. But kids are so accepting, honestly, mine don’t ask a lot of questions. I also talk about adoption a lot as a viable choice for many reasons, but mostly because my son is sterile so if/when he wants to have children that will most likely be his only option, and I want it to seem like a normal accepted option, not something that’s strange. So far, so good. I’m sure it gets tougher as they get older.

  • LIttle Read Hen

    May 16, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    This is a topic of constant discussion in my life. CONSTANT. My daughter is nearly 2 1/2. Her dad and I were married when she was born, but separated when she was a baby and have been divorced for a year. He and his girlfriend (who is herself the mother of a one year old) are expecting their first child together this fall. Whew!
    Meanwhile, I am involved with a man who has one biological son and two-step daughters from his first marriage. His son is a teenager and his daughters are about my age (he is a few years older than I am).
    Anyway. You would be hard-pressed to exclude any of these people from what I consider to be my family (yes, ex included).
    You would also be hard-pressed to find a book about blended families written for young kids. Everything is still so cookie cutter. What century is this?
    My ex and I are actually writing a little book with photos for our daughter and her little brothers to explain their family, as kids take so much from what they see around them. She has been having a challenging time understanding that her family is not just the ‘traditional’ looking one at her Dad’s house, but is made up of all the people who love her.
    We have, over the course of the past couple of years come upon a few pretty good resources: Mom’s House, Dad’s House (obviously) and which takes a positive, progressive, co-operative approach to co-parenting.
    Sorry to go on a bit, it a topic near and dear.
    Thanks for your article.

  • qwyneth

    May 16, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    This is a topic near and dear to me as well. My husband and I have custody of his 9-year-old, in big part because his mom had a severe drug problem for awhile. She gave birth to three children to different fathers after she and my husband broke up. (She developed the drug problem after they separated.) We are in contact with one of the families. We also have friends, a lesbian couple, who are about to have their first baby.
    My stepson struggled at first understanding that I was a member of his family even before his dad and I officially married. Family, classically, meant blood or marriage, and I didn’t fit even though I was the one who cooked dinner, did laundry, and kissed boo-boos. We gave him lots of examples of people he loved as family though, and when he asked explained that marriage and blood were less about family than love was. Over time he got it. 🙂
    My husband and I are actually currently thinking about writing kids books that address these kinds of issues. I’d really like for it to work out!

  • Liz

    May 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the great comments.
    Little Read, you might also take a look at for your daughter – they’re custom flash cards you can upload with your own family photos (or any photos) and I bet she’d love them.

  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    May 16, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    I find this story sort of hard to believe. What adoptive mother would go on national TV and allow herself to be called a “non-mom”? That doesn’t make sense.

  • Paula

    May 16, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    This is a very timely topic for me as I’ve been struggling with how to handle my sons’ questions. My kindergartner has become good friends with a little boy down the street who has two dads. He actually had a friend in preschool who had two moms, but I don’t think he ever really got that. He, along with my 10-year-old and 3-year-old have gone down to Ethan’s house to play (Ethan also has a 3-year-old brother). The first question that arose was, “Does Ethan have a mom?” to which I just replied, “No, he doesn’t.” Of course, the next questions were, “Did she die?” and “Is she in jail?” (not sure where that one came from!) and I just said, “No, he just has dads, no mom.” With three different ages and reasoning abilities, I hesitated to give the same answer to all. My two youngest seem to be okay with the fact that Ethan just has two dads, one of whom is home much more than the other and with whom they’ve had the most contact. My 10-year-old, on the other hand, was really, really curious. So before bed I just explained to him that there are many different kinds of families, and that Ethan has two dads who choose to live together and raise a family together. I live in Iowa, which is actually more progressive than most people think but definitely no San Francisco, so to be honest my son thought it was a little “weird.” I just went on to tell him that no matter how we feel about a person’s choice of lifestyle, we are always kind to people and we never impose our beliefs on them. We treat all people the way we want to be treated.
    I have no clue if this is the PC-way to answer the questions or not, but it seemed to work for my kids for now. There is definitely no “normal” when it comes to families anymore, and I think that the next generation of kids will be much more accepting than our current generation is.

  • Amy-may

    May 16, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    We use the term “ideally” frequently. The ideal family is a man and woman falling in love, getting married and having babies, raising happy kids, and staying in love until you die. Ideally – in a perfect world… Acknowledging the ideal family, doesn’t automatically make every other possibility second class. But it would be intellectually dishonest to claim that I don’t want “ideally” for myself (so far, so good) or for my children. I want an “easy” life for my kids. Being gay, single parenting, divorce court, custody hearings, infertility – all hard.
    So, in general conversation, family means traditional family. No point in attempting to define all the potential family units. But, if friend Chad’s blended-step-visitation family is being asked about, yep, that’s Chad’s family.

  • Liz

    May 16, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Suburban Correspondent: I’m not sure if the contestants were aware that this was the category name or not. (It was revised on site after the fact, with an apology you can see here:
    I would hate to think that they would have been comfortable with it. But then, people will put up with a lot for the chance to win 100 grand.

  • Vikki

    May 16, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I am a lesbian and my partner and I have been together for 15 years. We have two kids (ages 6 and 3) that we conceived through artificial insemination. We talk about what it means to be a family all of the time and not just because our family is considered atypical. We had some daddy issues at our daycare(for specifics you can check out my blog and search for the post Where’s Daddy?)and the fact is that the ignorance not only impacted our family but the child who was being raised by her grandmother, the child of the single mom, etc. The fact is that every family is different and every family should be valued.
    I don’t mean to stir controversy here but I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that describing a particular family as “ideal” doesn’t make every other family “second class”. We can’t underestimate the power of language.

  • Nancy

    May 17, 2008 at 7:57 am

    I have quite the blended family myself. I have four children from 3 different fathers. Two from two previous relationships and two with my husband. I always feel that I need to explain or justify myself when I describe my family because it always raises an eyebrow or two. So I’ll break the habit here. My oldest daughter has a step-sister and “half” brother (I loathe that term) on her Dad’s side as well. We don’t speak in terms of half and step really. We’re all family. It doesn’t really matter how it came to be.

  • Liz

    May 17, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Vikki, I agree with you. While it was a thoughtful and honest comment, I admit to cringing a bit as a woman in a committed domestic partnership to hear that I was not in an ideal relationship. I’d ascribe that to the fact that Nate sucks at doing the dishes and snores too much. Not to our marital status.

  • Sophie

    May 17, 2008 at 9:14 am

    I think about this sometimes. Where we live there doesn’t seem to be a lot of acknowledgement of non-traditional families. Of course there are kids who are part of one parent or blended families or who are adopted, but even then my kids bring home worksheets with “My Mom is.. My Dad is…” which seems quite restrictive. I always think about the kids who don’t have a mom or dad, or maybe have stepparents they would like to talk about as well. Two Moms or two Dads? Probably not around here, but you never know.
    All I can do is bring up my kids to be curious and open minded and I think the rest will come naturally. That’s how I was brought up and I think I turned out OK 🙂

  • simplicity

    May 17, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    This is dear to heart as we are also a blended family. My husband has two children from his first marriage that we share 50/50 custody with their mom. Their mom lives just a mile away. We also have a 2 year old son together. My 2 year old already gets that his older siblings go away for a few days every week, though he misses them dearly. I still haven’t figured out how we’ll explain why he calls me mom, and my stepkids call their mom, mom. My stepkids are 7 and 9 and we’ve caused lots of families to have discussions with their kids because their kids don’t necessarily “get” why they have two homes etc. I can tell that more than anything, it’s the adults who have the hard time.

  • PunditMom

    May 17, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    How to talk about families? Boy, have you got 10 or 15 hours? We talk all the time — is it enough? Too much? I don’t know.
    Today, coming home from soccer, PunditGirl said, out of the blue, “I can’t wait to go to China where more people look like me.” Guess I have more work to do.

  • Cheryl

    May 18, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    When it gets a bit sticky, I tend to default to Sesame Street…
    There was an uber-thoughtful family-centric version of Elmo’s World wherein a defining (and simply-stated) song with the lyrics “People Who Live Together and Love Each Other” are a family. Ultimately, that’s a great descriptor to me. 🙂 [And has seemed to work well with our twosome thus far..]
    Our twins are six…and I do struggle to not “over-answer” questions beyond what they’re actually asking [e.g. “Can a girl marry a girl?]because I want to clarify well and thoughtfully. Sometimes I think we project our adult desire for complete clarity onto kids unable to process the complexity of what we are saying. Other times, situations merit more discussion.
    Succinct answers [to the girl marrying girl query]like “In some places they can. Just like there are different speed limits. Every body has an idea of what they think works best.”
    For us, honesty without “over-talking” it seems to work best.

  • Fairly Odd Mother

    May 19, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    We have only started getting into the ‘mechanics’ of sex (and you should’ve seen the look I got when I described how it all happened!), but our kids know families with two daddies, women who are married, couples with kids who aren’t married, divorced families, kids raised by only their moms, etc. We got to a very gay-friendly UU church and, when my oldest asked me if she can marry her best friend, I told her, “as long as you stay in Massachusetts”. (or now Cali!)
    That ‘non-mom’ category is sickening and I’m sad that no one else thought to point this out before the show was aired.

  • Maggie

    May 21, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    I just can’t get over the “non-moms” category name, unbelievable.
    I don’t have much to add to the thoughtful comments here. My son is only 5 and he hasn’t asked about where babies come from or how families work. He seems to accept things as they come – so far no questions about why he has three sets of grandparents, or why his dad calls one of his dads “Dad” and the other “John,” etc. I generally just try to instill in him the idea that everyone is different, families are all different too, and so far that’s satisfied him.

  • Anonymous

    May 25, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Families are people who love and take care of each other.
    That’s it.
    They don’t have to live together. They don’t have to have certain dangly bits. They just have to love and take care of each other. Gay, straight, poly, separated by choice or by geography, blended or childfree. But then, I’m from Soviet Canuckistan to the north of you… 😉
    There’s a great little book called “The Not-so-only Child” about a little girl whose mom was a surrogate for other couples which is an interesting look at how widely families can be defined.

  • sara

    May 29, 2008 at 8:01 am

    New to your blog here.
    Read Todd Parr books to the little ones if you want to introduce the concept of different kinds of families: The Family Book, The Daddy Book, The Mommy Book, etc. My sons love the bright colors & simple drawings. My husband & I love the messages of difference and acceptance:
    “Some moms drive minivans. Some moms drive motorcycles”
    “Some families are the same color. Some families are different colors… Some families have two moms or two dads. Some families have one parent instead of two.”
    My older sons (twins, 5) talk about different sorts of family structures without much problem. They recently voted that one of my boys should marry his best friend, Jaden, and just needed to figure our how to adopt kids.

  • Mel

    June 25, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    We have a somewhat unique situation. My partner and I have a son with two gay men. We live 3 blocks apart and we share custody. We have keys to each house and can come and go as we please, although we don’t always do the best. I am the “other mother”, the one with no legal ties and no biological entitlement. It is hard enough sometimes when dealing with our family, so I know it is hard for the rest of the world to understand.
    I cringe at the “non-mother” because that is, I agree, a ridiculous notion. I carry him, care for him, tuck him in, sing to him, kiss his owies(although Mommy and not Momma, is better at that), I pay for his care and his clothes and his food. I am a parent because I parent him and act like a parent.
    I was raised between my aunt’s house and my mom’s, so while I come from a non-traditional family, it is tough to explain. We sing Deidre McCulloch’s song to our son every night. It talks about how love makes a family and how we are blessed to have people who love us unconditionally.