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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of May 15 - 21, 2002

  Opinion Columns

Nuclear or not, 
we are family

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

… the reality is that we are no longer in a world where a child would automatically envision a nuclear family as the norm.

When I was 9 years old, my best friend Jeannette and I built two dollhouses out of old orange crates. We furnished them with carpet scraps, some toy furniture, and our own handmade items. The first time I ever tried to quilt was in making bedding for the tiny four-poster in my crate's master bedroom. By today's standards of elegant Victorian or Cape Cod dollhouses, ours were primitive, but they provided hours of play and fodder for our vivid imaginations.

The crowning moment in designing our tiny domiciles was when we put imaginary people in them. Each of us had a small and perfect family for our masterpieces: a Mommy and Daddy and two children, a big brother and younger sister. We did not think anything unusual about our ideal fake family. The four together sat down at meals composed of little turkeys and one-inch pies served on wee tin plates passing for pewter. The nuclear family was, in the middle of the 20th century, of course, the norm. None of us, before television would introduce us to the larger world, knew much about homeless children, abandoned orphans or, for that matter, single-parent households. I do not recall any of my friends who didn't have both a mother and father at home. Only one of my high school buddies was from a divorced home

By the time my children were born, family life as I had perceived it was already changing. Not only did they have several friends who experienced the wrenching trauma of seeing their parents divorced, but they, too, much to my shame, experienced it. I remember noticing the drawings their classmates made of families gathered around a table. Often, they consisted of only one parent, and one particularly moving image had the daddy far at the top of the page, in heavenly remove. Yes, my daughters' generation knew first hand the altered reality of family held for so long by Americans.

Their progeny will experience an even greater change. The rise of single parent households has been well documented. Many women now choose to bear or adopt children without benefit of a live-in father. Same-sex households are being given greater access to procreation through surrogacy or in-vitro fertilization or, in the case of male pairs, adoption. Recently Rosie O'Donnell featured families of same-sex unions who are grappling with laws that allow them to be foster parents but not adoptive parents. Although laws vary from state to state, many couples are struggling with making homes for previously unwanted children who have been homeless.

Whether one supports the multitudinous permutations of combinations comprising contemporary families or not, the reality is that we are no longer in a world where a child would automatically envision a nuclear family as the norm.

In addition to Rosie's special, two recent television features stimulated my examination of the concept of family. One was about the children transported from England to Australia in a resettlement effort to populate that country with more Anglo blood. Many of the hundreds of deportees had families who had merely temporarily signed them away, intending to return when they could afford them. Nonetheless, children were taken from institutions in England and put into institutions in Australia. Many of those children never found a home and spent desperately unhappy and abusive childhoods. They craved a family.

In this country, for many decades until the 1930s, abandoned children were taken from the streets of New York and sent on what became known as the Orphan Train to potential homes in the Midwest. This was a well-meaning attempt to rescue those most vulnerable to the rigors of a horrible existence on the streets. Many found foster or adoptive homes, but many suffered the trauma of being examined at one stop, rejected, and then sent on to the next and the next. Those unchosen children forever craved a family.

Even today there are "adoption fairs" wherein prospective parents can look at children in the context of a large setting. While this may be a valid approach to matching children with possible parents, I wonder at the dismay of those less cute or "adoptable." Potential daughters and sons, whether or not they fit the expected profile, crave family.

Foster homes don't always offer the best long-term care, though many are excellent. My sister, adopted by our family at 17, had been shuttled between foster families who often ignored her needs. Her high school English teacher called my parents and told them of the bright young girl who was coming barefoot to class because she had no money for shoes. Although this occurred in San Francisco in the middle of the last century, some of those abuses still continue.

So, what do we do? We live in a time when many childless people want to parent, and yet babies who fit the "ideal" are rare. When there are so many older children who are waiting to be placed, perhaps we need to expand our acceptance of the concept of valid families. I imagine most of the former Australian émigrés, the children of the Orphan Train, and any child today who is in an institution waiting for adoption would gladly reside with someone who loved him, whether single, gay or of a different color.

There are families, nuclear or not, awaiting creation.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.