Reclaiming the title of “family” for those whose domestic lives don’t mimic the popular concept of nuclear family is the purpose of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay. She denounces the still widely-held definition of family as exemplified by her childhood paper “Family of Dolls” (“Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior”) as a “narrow view” that is “pickled and absurd.” The truth about families is that the “typical” nuclear family isn’t typical at all. Her examination of family structures throughout recent history (paragraphs 19 through 23) demonstrates that only recently has the “traditional” nuclear family existed as a model for domestic arrangements. Kingsolver points out that, “Divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, gay parents, and blended families simply are. They’re facts of our time.” She argues that those who cling to the notion of perfect families contrived to fit stylized notions have failed to notice the constitution and success of half of the families around. The Family of Dolls is incomplete because even nuclear families usually depend on extended family members to complete their unit. Kingsolver wants her readers to “let go of the fairy tale of families functioning perfectly in isolation.”
Kingsolver also wants to de-stigmatize divorce. She argues that the term “irreconcilable differences” is misleading because it masks the serious grounds upon which most responsible adults seek divorces. Recounting her own experiences, she advises that friends should respond to the newly divorced as they would to a widow. She even suggests, tongue in cheek, that “Casseroles would help.” After her own divorce, Kingsolver recorded some of the ways people responded wrongly toward her. For example, asking “Did you want the divorce”? strikes her as a particularly stupid question, but it is a better response than that of those friends who simply disappeared when her marriage ended. She notes that her daughter feels uncomfortable about her parents’ divorce only “when her friends say they feel sorry for her.” Contrary to popular belief, Kingsolver thinks divorce can be good for children. The experiences of the young soccer player described in the essay’s opening paragraph and her own daughter bear this out. Children of divorce can be the beneficiaries of a “family fortune”: a larger than customary complement of homes, caring parents and grandparents, and siblings.
If Kingsolver’s assertions in this essay are true, at least half of her readers have good cause to share her indignation at society’s stubborn refusal to grant full family status to the kinds of real families that populate the United States today. She addresses her readers directly, saying, “. . . we aren’t the Family of Dolls. Maybe you’re not, either.” She empathizes with readers from nontraditional family structures, sharing their shame with being judged as “failures” whose “children are at risk, and [whose] whole arrangement is [seen as being] messy and embarrassing.” If half of her readers are part of a nuclear family, this essay addresses them, too; Kingsolver says, “most of us are up to our ears in the noisy business of trying to support and love a thing called family.” Basically since everyone is affected in some way by the social construct of families, this essay addresses a broad audience. If any readers are likely to tune this essay out completely, they are members of the “religious right,” which Kingsolver deals with sharply for its much-publicized concept of “family values.”
Kingsolver’s essay seems to be directed primarily at female readers. She appeals mostly to women when she argues that partners in a marriage have the right to “self-respect and independence” as well as “happiness and safety from abuse.” Single parenthood and teenaged motherhood, which primarily affect women in this country, are explored in this essay, as is the author’s own situation. Kingsolver considers the extended families to which her grandmother and others of her generation belonged, revealing that “in many cases they spent virtually every waking hour working in the company of other women.” She judges that “a companionable scenario.” This essay celebrates the many social advances for women that result from the modern forms that families take. Women now are “more likely to divorce” and “plan and space [their] children “ yet “less likely to suffer abuse without recourse, or to stare at [their] lives through a glaze of prescription tranquilizers.” Given all that, she says, “hip-hip-hooray for ‘broken’ [homes].”
An extensive argument, this essay draws upon rational, ethical, and emotional appeals to persuade its audience that changes in family demographics are not necessarily bad for society. Kingsolver says that nontraditional families are “statistically no oddity.” She reports that “in Colonial days the average couple lived to be married less than twelve years.” In present-day America, the “rate at which teenage girls [have] babies” is half what it was in 1957. Since 1979, government support of single parents has steadily declined. Kingsolver draws upon her own experience as a divorced parent, and as a close family friend in other nontraditional households to proclaim the children in some nontraditional families “Lucky.” She appeals to the emotions of her readers as she describes the agony of the “two terrifying options” available to women considering divorce.
Perhaps only a novelist would put such credence in the words of a fictional character as does Kingsolver, when she quotes Reynolds Price’s character Kate Vaiden’s advice to the beleaguered: “. . . meet what they send you and keep your hair combed.” Kingsolver evinces a creative writer’s gift for inventing metaphors and conceits. Comparing herself to a widow following her own divorce, she complains that “people are acting like I had a fit and broke up the family china.” (Consider the pun in that, since dividing the china with her ex-husband would have broken up the set.) She describes “a non functioning marriage” as “slow asphyxiation,” and says that “disassembling a marriage . . . is as much fun as amputating your own gangrenous leg.” Midway through the essay, Kingsolver chastises those who criticize divorcees and other members of nontraditional living arrangements, saying they “should stop throwing stones.” Her final tale, about the making of stone soup, suggests what the targets of such stones might do with them to reverse their fortunes.