The ties that bind

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Polyamory, open adoption, mixed marriage, househusbandry, single motherhood -- 18 authors tackle what it means to be a family in the 21st century

Growing up in a decidedly conventional family, when I came across One Big Happy Family, a collection of essays on family and love, my interest was immediately peaked.


One Big Happy Family is edited by Rebecca Walker, who is herself a product of a family who defied the traditional concept of the nuclear family. Her parents came from different races, divorced and lived 3,000 miles apart. This allowed Walker to develop a fascination regarding the concept of family, and what this word denotes. As she describes in her introduction to One Big Happy Family, she spent "...an inordinate amount of time at the homes of my friends, convinced I could find the missing ingredient, the rarefied glue that coalesced seemingly random individuals into invisible clans." This led her to put her family-watching skills to use by editing One Big Happy Family, whose essays were contributed by a varied group of 18 well respected writers. The essays touch on the topics of open marriage, bicultural families, green card marriage and more. Each essay is tied together by people who are trying to figure out what it means to be a family in the 21st century, and more personally, how to make their own families function.


The decidedly unconventional undertone of this collection is set with the first essay, "And Then We Were Poly," by Jenny Block. This essay explores the murky and often misunderstood concept of polyamory and open marriages in an expressive and extremely personal way. She explains that sexual ownership does nothing to support the relationship between herself and her husband, and that polyamory enables them to have a more fulfilling and joyous relationship. This essay is an excellent way to start the collection because it supports the way many of the essays reject the gay/straight binary in favour of a realization that we are all simply people, trying to figure out the best way to live our lives.


Another gem in this collection is "Home Alone Together" by Neal Pollack, a hilarious and standout piece about being a househusband, and staying home alone with his young son. His descriptions of his son's antics, as well as his relationship with his wife elicited many laughs from me, prompting a few stares from people in the subway car I was riding. Although the essay was very amusing, Neal Pollack had a way of making his characters so relatable, and there was an earnestness in this essay that made it absolutely stand out from the rest. Another particularly amusing piece was by Liza Monroy, about her green card marriage to her gay best friend, and how it conflicts with her relationship with her mother, who works for the State Department. This was a particularly intriguing piece because of the way she allows the reader to journey with her and her best friend Razi as their relationship grows from friendship to family.


In addition to these pieces, were also several essays which took on a more academic tone. These read less like fiction stories, and more like guides. One of these is the essay written by Paula Penn-Nabrit, which provides an interesting look at her decision to homeschool her African-American sons. While the essay plays on the reader's emotions, it takes a much more factual approach, thoroughly detailing the reasons behind Paula Penn-Nabrit's decision. Marc and Amy Vachon's essay "Half the work, All the Fun" about equal parenting is approached in the same manner. In the essay, they describe the various ways in which they divide the duties of not only raising their children, but housework and work outside the home. Located towards the end of the collection, these more formal essays contrast with that of the previous essays. I found it an adjustment to switch between these tones, but that's all part and parcel of reading an essay collection.


Throughout this compilation, I was constantly reevaluating my own idea of family. This is possibly the greatest benefit of this book -- One Big Happy Family forces you to look inward and rethink and relabel your own experiences. By the end, you wonder whether there is any style of family that isn't workable, but maybe that's the point. The earnestness of each essay held the collection together, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time immersed in other people's families.--Katie O'Connor


Katie O'Connor is a recent graduate of Carleton University's political science program. She is currently living in Toronto.

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