Would Jesus recognize the ‘nuclear family’?

There is not just one kind of family. And all kinds of families are beloved of God.
Our Faith

It was a warm summer night back in the early 2010s. I was sitting on a patio sipping sangria with a friend I’ll call Jim—a man about a decade and a half older than I am—and discussing future plans. I can’t forget Jim’s response when I told him I was quite sure I’d never want to have children.

“You want kids,” he stated, as if it were a fact on par with saying the sky is blue. Taken aback, I muttered that no, I really didn’t, but I might be open to adopting.

“You want your own kids,” Jim pressed. I can’t recall how I responded, but inside I was seething that this male friend had the audacity to tell me what I did and didn’t want in one of the most intimate domains of my life. Admittedly, the alcohol was an influence. Jim later backtracked from this firm stance. My indignation cooled, and the topic dropped. We remain friends to this day, and now that a good decade has passed since that conversation (and I am, alas, nearing the end of my childbearing potential) I believe I’ve managed to convince him that I really did mean those words.

For a woman to openly state she does not desire children remains borderline blasphemous in many areas of our culture, particularly Christian ones. In Someone Other Than a Mother, writer and theologian Erin S. Lane challenges the idea that motherhood is essential to femininity. The book, which combines memoir, journalistic investigation, and theology, is subtitled “Flipping the Scripts on a Woman’s Purpose and Making Meaning Beyond Motherhood.” Each chapter is given the title of a common cliché that women without children hear, from “Your biological clock is ticking” to “But you’d make a great mom” to “You don’t know love until you become a mother.” These are replaced with more expansive alternatives, such as “The sound of your genuine is calling,” “Mother makes a better verb than noun,” and “There are limitless ways to love to your limit.”


Lane’s narrative alternates between sharing profiles of women who have opted not to have children, invoking expert voices on the subject, and relating her own journey from a purposely child-free marriage to the decision she and her spouse made to foster and eventually adopt three young girls. For me, this narrative initially appeared to undercut Lane’s defense of a child-free way of life. Aware of this contradiction, Lane broadens her argument to discuss the idea of family more in general. In a culture where some politicians and religious leaders constantly invoke the family as a touchstone when advocating for certain morals and policies, Lane looks at the biblical view of traditional families. With a tongue-in-cheek tone, she states, “The first book alone is downright Shakespearean in plot. Barren wife forces female slave to sleep with aging husband. Mother helps younger son deceive father for the family blessing. Sister becomes jealous of sister’s fertility, and, in a fury fit for a stage, screams at shared husband, ‘Give me children—or I will die!’ ”

Lane immediately goes on to state that most families are not trying to emulate those of biblical figures. Instead, she writes:

It’s the nuclear family that has become synonymous with the traditional family in the United States, even though it’s been well-documented that such a family form didn’t even exist until the last century. . . . How this image of family—biological, conjugal, and of a manageable size—is so popular among Christians baffles me, given that Jesus appears belligerently uninterested in (and, obviously, categorically unaware of) it. Over and over as I pored through the translucent pages of my neon-blue Bible, I noticed Jesus refusing to identify with his traditional family and instead spinning a new vision of family: one in which shared practice, not shared parentage, binds together the people of God. A family that is more made than begotten. A family in which there is no mine or yours.

As Christians we often forget that the Jesus we encounter in the gospels had no nuclear family of his own. Many of his apostles were fathers who had effectively abandoned their own families. Jesus also befriended many women—something extremely countercultural for the time. If Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene had spouses and children, these did not make it into the gospel stories. It was friendship, more than family, that laid at the center of Jesus’ adult life and ministry: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).


As a single, child-free woman with no siblings, I have spent my entire adult life seeking family that transcends bloodlines. My search has involved becoming a legal guardian to an undocumented young woman as she pursues legal status in the United States, inviting youth experiencing homelessness to live with me, and giving piano lessons to my high school best friend’s two young sons. It has involved translating poetry by Spanish-speaking authors whom I have gone on to befriend. It has involved volunteering at a Catholic Worker house, a mental health hospital, and a refugee resettlement agency.

Admittedly, at times my search includes anguish and loneliness when I return at the end of a workday to my empty house or find myself celebrating a favorite holiday alone. It has brought deep pain on the few occasions that a member of my reimagined family decided they no longer desired such kinship with me. But it has also involved hosting joyous dinner parties with a motley assortment of characters, saving money to travel and visit friends in different cities or countries, and frequently calling people just to say I was thinking of them.

So many Christmas cards feature images of Mary, accompanied by Joseph, holding the infant Jesus. This is the original holy family we celebrate during the Christmas season. However, Jesus’ adult ministry shows us a different model of family, one that involves outcasts, tax collectors, other itinerant preachers, lepers, and presumably unmarried women. This model refuses to conform to any pre-established image. It seeks to create belonging in multiple contexts. In a liberating treatise on the many vocational paths open to us all, Lane makes a vow that I think most of us can stand behind: “I vow to mark not just births but new beginnings; I vow to participate in the baptism of not just babies but vocations; I vow to throw down for not just graduations but the gradual tides of aging. And this vow, this vow of attention to how women are making, and have always been making, meaning beyond the bright lights of motherhood, will be how I make my peace.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Le Christ chez Marthe et Marie, Joos Goemare


About the author

Jeannine M. Pitas

Jeannine M. Pitas is a teacher, writer and Spanish-English literary translator living in Pittsburgh. She teaches at Saint Vincent College.

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