It’s probably (definitely) because of my age that I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about family. As an only child, I’ve been somewhat of a lone wolf since birth. Since my late teens, I’ve mostly lived alone, worked alone, and moved across the world (and back) alone. Neither of my parents lives in the same city as me - or each other! - and this has been the case since I left home at 19.

In short, I probably have a predilection for overthinking the meaning of family and all it entails. Those with a pathological tendency towards independence may relate. But as I enter a stage where thoughts of building my own family occupy considerable space in my mind, I’ve also noticed a correlating shift in the way that we are thinking about family as a society – and more specifically, the way we’re thinking about the heteronormative nuclear family unit to which many of us have been conditioned to aspire.

In recent years, the “child-free movement” has gathered serious momentum, with millions of adults deciding that partnering up and popping out a couple of kids is, in fact, not for them. There are a slew of reasons behind this: changing perceptions of gender roles and norms; the unignorable real-time effects and implications of climate crisis; and the astronomical rise in the cost of living around the world, to name just a few. The parenting horror stories that emerged into the media discourse during the pandemic (and have circulated ever since) have no doubt played their role, as have the proliferating viral threads on what pregnancy actually does to a woman’s body (my algorithm loves to serve up the most gruesome versions of these).

In tandem, there’s been a dramatic reassessment of romantic partnership and a marked shift away from the sugar-spun, rom-comesque depictions of love that have dominated popular culture for decades. Ethical non-monogamy has extended far beyond the queer communities where it was pioneered, the spectrum of sexual orientation has diversified, and heterosexuality has become somewhat of a running joke, even for those who identify as straight. It feels like many of us - even those with relatively conventional aspirations for monogamous relationships and joint parenting - are seeking new models for how we might do things better; find ways to be happier.

In the West, alternative models of family life are nothing new - the late 1960s and 1970s saw the growing popularity of communal living in the US in particular. These ‘social experiments’ have now largely disbanded and fallen out of vogue, at least within mainstream society. At the same time, the financial, emotional, and psychological strain of nuclear family living has begun to feel unsustainable for many, and outright undesirable for some. The need for community is greater than ever, but the term has been co-opted by corporations and brands to the extent that no one really knows where or how to cultivate it.

Reading List & Prompts
Sheila Heti 

Abolish The Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation
Sophie Lewis 

The Cost of Living
Deborah Levy 

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments:  Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals
Saidiya Hartman

A Life’s Work
Rachel Cusk 

Breasts and Eggs
Mieko Kawakami

Blue Nights
Joan Didion 

What Does It Mean to Abolish The Family?
Tom Whyman for Art Review

On Heteropessimism
Asa Seresin for The New Inquiry

“I Got Saved By The Beauty of the World”
Mary Oliver interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being

The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships
Esther Perel 

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person
Alain de Botton for The New York Times

Is Monogamy Over?
Michelle Ruiz for Vogue

Parenting in Utopia
Kim Brooks for The Cut

It’s Okay To Have Children
Connor Kilpatrick for Jacobin

Man Child
Audre Lorde


The State of American Motherhood
Jessica Grose interviewed by Erica Chidi for Goop

Home Life 1: Multi-Generational Household
Home Life 2: Single Person Household
Home Life 3: Nuclear Household
Thinking Aloud 
“ I thought about how unfair it was that she and I had to think about having kids - that we had to sit here talking about it, feeling like if we didn't have children, we would always regret it. It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties - when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience - from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility - a question that didn't seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all.” Sheila Heti, Motherhood 

Even though ‘Motherhood’ was only published in 2018, Heti’s depiction of a world where a woman “can’t just say [she doesn’t] want a child” already seems to be in flux. To what extent do you think this response to being ‘child-free' will change in the next decade? What do you think about Heti’s assertion that having children is a “huge conspiracy” to keep women in a state of submission?

“To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman. It requires skill, time, dedication and empathy to create a home that everyone enjoys and that functions well. Above all else, it is an act of immense generosity to be the architect of everyone else's well-being. This task is still mostly perceived as women's work. Consequently, there are all kinds of words used to belittle this huge endeavour.” - Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living 

Much of the reading responds to how the family unit has sacrificed the Mother; have you mirrored (fictional, friend, stranger) others when ‘architecting’ your own life to avoid this? Can it be avoided within the dominant status quo?

“I’d done a lot of babysitting before I came here, so I knew what I was getting into, and I purposefully wanted to raise children in community. I could see that raising kids in a nuclear family was going to be” — she paused, looking for just the right word — ‘hell’.” - Kim Brooks, Parenting in Utopia

‘Parenting in Utopia’ and ‘Abolish the Family’ share ideas of how community, outside of our direct unit, could ease the burden of child-rearing. For a culture that fiercely protects ‘the family unit’, how would we begin to share our roles (without having to move into a commune?!)

“ Having kids is bad for the environment. Or is it the deficit? Or wait, no, it’s selfish because the world has gone to hell. Whichever one you choose, the important thing to remember is that, according to a growing number of liberals, reproducing the species is the equivalent of buying a McMansion and running the A/C with all the windows open.” - Connor Kilpatrick, It’s Okay to Have Children

Increasingly, we have had borderline-apocalyptic responses to having or not having children: if you do have children you are part of the climate problem, if you don’t, you will regret it forever. Amid the cost of living crisis, children are increasingly seen as a “luxury item”. What do you think about the increased politicisation of children in recent years?

“A certain strain of heteropessimism assigns 100 percent of the blame for heterosexuality’s malfunction to men, and has thus become one of the myriad ways in which young women—especially white women—have learned to disclaim our own cruelty and power. Like most lesbians, I have found myself on the receiving end of approximately 100,000 drunk straight women bemoaning their orientation and insisting that it would be “so much easier” to be gay.” - Asa Seresin, On Heteropessimism

Asa Seresin critiques a trend of women who wish to disavow their heterosexuality without picturing a better model of being. From Seresin’s and others’ diagnoses of the problems, what does “hetero-optimism” look like?

“All our children are outsiders for a queendom not yet assured. My adolescent son’s growing sexuality is a conscious dynamic between Jonathan and me. It would be

presumptuous of me to discuss Jonathan’s sexuality here, except to state my belief that whomever he chooses to explore this area with, his choices will be nonoppressive, joyful, and deeply felt from within, places of growth.” -
Audre Lorde, Man Child 

Audre Lorde writes about being a lesbian and a Black Mother to a Black son; creating a family unit with the optimism of the emerging Lesbian motherhood movement. What makes you feel optimistic about the future of parenthood?


“We are taught that love is unconditional, passion is absolute, and that finding “the one” should clear us of all doubt. But relationships are never black and white. We learn that romantic love is supposed to flood us with certainty and thus there is no room for ambivalence. But ambivalence is as intrinsic to relationships as love itself.” -
Esther Perel, The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships

How have you noticed societal expectations of romantic love changing in recent years – and with them, your own?

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