Having Kids vs. Building A Family

There's a lot to be said for disposition shifts. Changing how I see and relate to people, groups, and ideas has been the best cure for my most desperate problems. It's the anecdote to following abstracted scripts for those of us raised in blank slate culture

But don't worry. I'm not here to sell you my gratitude practice. (I am grateful that this software still works as well as it did in 2001, and let's leave it at that.)

Instead, I want to talk briefly about disposition shifts in the context of the phrase, "Building A Family." This is not a phrase I ever heard anyone use growing up (in Hyde Park, Chicago--President Obama's old neighborhood). If people talked about becoming parents, they referred to "Having Kids." I never gave this two thoughts, but last year, I came across someone I didn't know using the phrase "Building A Family" and it stuck in my mind. Our culture talks incessantly about the importance of building a career, but I've never heard anyone talk about building a family. What does that even mean? Does it matter?

I think it does. The difference between these two phrases can be a powerful disposition shift that changes how we plan and live our lives. Perhaps it has some cultural baggage that I don't know about. I don't think I care, though I'd be curious to learn more.

What stuck with me is that as I thought about the phrase, its corollary of "having kids" came to seem more of a disposition of consumption: an experience that centers one's personal enjoyment of being a parent. Should I have kids? Should I buy that coat? Do I like having kids? How curious they are. Four stars, would recommend! Best with a reliable, financially stable date, BYOW.

Building a family, on the other hand, is a framework shift that creates the gestalt of the family to consider--in addition to your personal experience as a parent. It demands responsibility for this gestalt from everyone within the family on top of the individual bonds between its members, and also explodes the phenomenon from a discreet act of labor into an unending process of building. It crosses generations and the walls of your home to your extended family, alive and dead. It gives meaning to family names and customs. "Building a family" is something you can prepare your kids to do in addition to building a career. Do you have a plan? You will pick up a brick trowel someday, too, little bean. And not just to hit your brother, OK?

For me, "building a family" as a disposition is an active undertaking that requires and creates depth and meaning in a way that "having kids" cannot capture. Having kids easily drifts into a passive disposition for such an exceptionally active undertaking; it devalues the role of each and both parents together and renders everyone more of an economic unit (our current default). Perhaps it's part of why so many young people are currently so put off by the prospect and so many current parents feel unrecognized. Humans crave gestalt. Above all, we crave gestalt.

Making this disposition shift has felt like something clicking into place within me, fathoms deep, and is re-shaping how I relate to my husband, kids, extended family, history, future, house, community, names, work, cat (why not?), and the ineffably beautiful and rich chord that we are all building together, even when it jangles and wavers. I'm passing along the words to whoever wants to hear it:

Build a family.