Those Meddling Kids
It takes just a quick glance at movies, TV shows, and books to realize that our entertainment is packed with attractive and unmarried characters, and a good portion of those that are married look and act like they aren’t married. Fictitious families usually have one or two children, and the only times we see large families are either for comic effect or to provide a challenge for our middle-sibling protagonists to overcome. Depictions of marriage and family vary by genre (you’ll find a lot more husbands, wives, and kids in Western and Amish stories) but it’s interesting to observe how rarely families show up in speculative fiction.
Fantasy, with its medieval roots and settings, naturally has more instances of families featuring prominently in the story, either as the fertile soil from which our hero springs or as a tangled web of secrets and lies, especially if the story centers around a royal family. In quest-based fantasy, our marrying-age hero or heroine is usually still single or must rescue their kidnapped love. Rarely do we see our intrepid traveler leave a wife and children behind to go on their epic quest, and this is for a number of reasons. One, it’s not very realistic (as far as fantasy goes). A man or a woman with a family to care for would not go on a quest unless the survival of the family depended on it, and there are usually more capable and less married people around to do the job instead. Two, it wouldn’t sit well with readers if a spouse and parent left their family in pursuit of the Scroll of Destiny as the Prophecy Foretold. It would be hard to generate sympathy for such a character, especially from readers with families of their own. Three, families are a mental, physical, and emotion burden. A joyous burden but a burden nonetheless. An unattached protagonist is much easier to read and write since they are able to devote themselves to the cause at hand.
Science fiction goes even further. I would have to think long and hard to recall a sci-fi story or movie where a large family was central to the storyline (I’m sure some of you could come with some examples, though). Lost in Space is one of the few instances of where a family remains together for the duration of the series. By and large, the people hurtling through space are either unattached or have left loved ones behind, but these tangential characters exist only to elicit empathic emotions from the audience (and to cry when their intrepid parent nobly sacrifices themselves).
The bottom line is that kids (and to a lesser degree, spouses) get in the way of a good story, or at least that’s the popular perception. Turn on a movie or TV show and take a look at the characters on the screen and ask yourself if these people would be single and/or childless in real life. I believe that as entertainment consumes greater amounts of our time – and we fashion our lives into entertainment thanks to social media – marriage, children, and families are being perceived in an increasingly negative light. The young, hot, wealthy Instagram influencer is able to live that way because she is unmarried and has no children. She is carefree and stretch mark-free. Contrast that with “mommy blogs” where stressed-out moms seek guidance and support to make it through their hectic days. A society that craves the perfect body and the drool-worthy backdrop looks at family life and says, “Ew.” They see how children consume the lives of parents and think of kids as a ball and chain.
This viewpoint naturally features heavily in our entertainment, especially futuristic stories. Granted, it’s hard to have action-packed adventures when you have half a dozen hungry mouths to feed, and single people have often been the heroes of stories since ages past. Yet it’s clear that this antagonistic attitude towards traditional families and children goes beyond entertainment. We see women “shouting their abortions” and hits like The Handmaid’s Tale stirring up imagined persecution complexes, while children are exposed to gay marriage as young as elementary school. At its core, this sentiment is based on hatred of God and His word. The Bible says, “Male and female He created them,” and the world says, “We’ll see about that.” The Bible says, “A man shall cleave to his wife,” and the world says, “Boring!” The Bible says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the world says, “And miss out on all the fun?!”
Even among Christians, not everyone will get married, and not everyone will have children. And yes, children would be a bit of an encumbrance in many stories. But despite what we see on the page and screen, marriage and parenthood is a wild and exciting journey, and above all, a blessing from God.
Something that works very well is to have the chars be assassins, soldiers, etc that go out on missions or rotations on the battlefield, then come home. Naruto does this from the standpoint that the society has a high quantity of ninja. It’s normal for the ninja to go out on missions, perhaps for weeks or months at a time, then go back home and hang out with their kids and train them. There are other things that help in that society, though, such as the children being taught to be independent from an earlier age.
And if there are two parents in the household, one can go off as part of their job (and it’s hard to blame them since that is how they help provide for their families) while the other parent stays back at takes care of the kids (though that parent could always have a job as well)
Well, anymore the dual-income is a necessity rather than a real choice. Most SAHMs are probably on SNAP (food stamps) or housing assistance or some other kind of welfare. I know a lot of them TRY to make an income from home (hello, all the MLM huns on my Facebook), but usually fail because MLMs are the scum of the capitalist system, along with payday loansharking.
I think it’s worth an experiment, a more communal lifestyle where there is a Den Mom/s or Den Grandma/s who manage a lot of the household stuff while the others go out as wage-earners. Traditionally this would be the extended family (the nuclear family as the ideal is a waaaay more recent and much more American phenomenon), but given the entrenched dysfunction of way too many families, I think the more feasible option is people screened for personality and lifestyle preferences.
What would work would depend on the society. Taking Naruto’s into consideration, different families have different arrangements. Some are part of large clans with extended families that probably wouldn’t mind looking after kids when need be. Other times, people are orphans that probably receive some governmental financial assistance, which can totally be justified since, once they’re out of the Academy (usually around 12 years old) they will start to go out on missions and earn income that supports themselves while also earning money for the village. Often enough, ninja children are independent enough that they need minimal supervision, though. Some ninja have one parent that goes out on missions and another parent that has a side career while also looking out for the kids. I think Ino’s parents are like that. Her father works in the intelligence division, if I recall correctly, while her mother runs the family’s flower shop. So, those are some arrangements that could be incorporated into a story.
As for real life, different things work for different people. My parents worked very hard and didn’t have much as far as community around them when it came to raising me and my sister, but it still worked because they were both dedicated and responsible. If people want to do the den mother thing while everyone goes out and earns wages, though, there’s nothing much to stop them as long as they’re willing to put in the work to figure out the logistics. I would hope it doesn’t become so common that everyone does it, though. It should still be socially acceptable to keep the babysitting within a small nuclear family if they so desire. Not everyone is going to be able to get their needs met by the local den mothers and whatnot.
Well, family stops you from doing risky stuff that advances the plot. Sorry family, you need to be put down for story purposes.
And how many mommy bloggers do you follow? My experience is generally the opposite, that they feature or talk up their kids as part of the Happy Cozy Experience, or another riff on Joanna Gaines Magnolia Perfect Retro Farmhouse Aesthetic. Or the crafting, crunchy-granola types do.
But heck, a solid percentage of Instagram influencers are older women with kids, who mention them briefly as part of their busy lifestyle while they launch this new makeup line here. You have to consider the audience for whom the ads are intended. Mark probably just catches the fringe where they feature the sort of aesthetic meant to lure in the older teenage/college market whereas I trip the algorithms to see the more sophisticated aesthetic aimed at women with careers and stuff (brb, crying into my wine cooler while deleting LinkedIn reminders to improve my profile).
But there is the good point that at the root of all this b*tching about lifestyles is that the Olds think the Youngs are ruining everything by doing gender wrong. It’s a nice example to have on hand for the next time I rant about the patriarchy.
Instead of ranting, just type, “Patriarchy.” We’ll know what you mean. 🙂
For the most part, I legitimately enjoy watching Fixer Upper. But I can’t stand the hyper-romanticized homesteader archetype. It’s a bunch of nonsense. Yes, sip your tea in your peaceful, perfectly clean rustic (how’s that for an oxymoron) farmhouse, while your children sit for 2 seconds at the window, and you get the perfect picture, and talk about slow days in the sun, gardening, etc. Just don’t mention your kids crapping their pants and coloring on the walls (or if you do, do it in a way that makes you seem saintly). Both what you said, and what Mark talked about, exist.
IDK, I tend to think the Olds hate the Youngs for a much broader reason, because they think that the Youngs look like the caricature of Millenials that love participation awards, want their own pronouns, etc. (while ignoring the truth that everything they complain about in Millenials turns back on their own heads because they were the ones who bought the video games, bought the phones, ignored their children, allowed abuse to happen, and invented participation awards). They don’t realize that there’s no common Millenial culture, as there was in the Olds time period, because mass media has been reorganized so drastically. Basically, they’re still sucking off the teet of Fox News or CBS News, instead of actually spending time with real millenials and getting to know them, so they spend their time ranting on FB about politics and “in my day we didn’t . . . ” instead. Meanwhile, the Youngs mute the Olds’ posts and walk the other direction.
But her ranting fuels the discussion :p
I did/do like Fixer Upper to some extent, but it’s become suuuuuuper commercialized. Joanna has built a small media empire to go along with whatever antiquing business she had going. Good for her, non-sarcastically, but I have plenty of reservations about the home decor industry, and having hairpin table legs shoved in my face alla time does nothing to help that.
You betcha she has a nanny or au pair or two for her five-six kids, and at least one farmhand to take care of that hobby farm they have (my complicated relationship with hobby farming is another post), but we never see them. I’d actually applaud her for piercing the illusion a bit and showing the nanny alongside the kids, but nope, all that invisible labor is expected to stay invisible.
Yeah, it makes no sense otherwise. Because if they don’t have a nanny and extra hands, their kids are basically constantly alone. There’s no other conceivable option. Success always damages relationships. Money is almost always a curse, not a blessing. Show me someone very successful, and I’ll show you someone very wounded, and who has wounded the people around them on the path to success. It’s a law of the universe.
Not sure I’d qualify as a hobby farmer, but my wife and I have been enjoying gardening. Especially with our little stinker bopping around. Our daughter gets excited to help with watering, and seeing the plants, “Growing BIGGA and BIGGA!” Still, even gardening a small plot is quite time consuming. Heck, keeping one dang small house clean is a lot of work with ONE child, let alone multiple.
Until they get old enough to understand the idea of cleaning up after themselves/old enough to know how to help.
Even then it takes work to remind them why they should care. I suppose I’ll figure out what that stage is like soon enough, and whether or not it’s easier. : )
Eh, I think not having to change diapers or watch them 24/7 lest they choke or fall or whatnot is a step up already 😛 But yeah, it does sound like they can get difficult as they grow up. Like if they decide to get into drugs or a bad relationship as a teen or something.
Diapers aren’t bad when it’s your own kid. Neither is watching them all the time. The choking/falling on sharp objects and dying or going blind thing has caused me serious anxiety, though. I don’t get parents who don’t even seem to notice that their children are constantly almost killing themselves at a park.
When kids are young, they’re simpler. When their wills and desires become more complex, and their minds more sneaky, it becomes a different sort of difficult.
Ha! As if!
Well, there are specific wheat hobbyists who ruined my chill with their effing 15% rye counts coming in effing tiny 8-ton loads on effing rickety old grain trucks that may or may not break down in the elevator bay, but I also reserve some stink eye for people who seem more like animal hoarders than farmers/ranchers.
But at the same time, if left to my own devises, I’d probably end up being a hobby farmer, too.
Lol I have next to no idea what any of that means, but it sounds annoying.
Mommy bloggers have amassed huge followings and gotten nifty book contracts based off “keeping it real”. I mean, there was a heyday and a peak, but that peak and subsequent decline occurred almost everywhere in the blogging world.
Family tends to add to stories rather than detract from it. They make characters more human and can raise stakes, too, if the protag’s danger affects vulnerable relations.
One sci-fi story in which family is important is “Moon’, in which the protagonist is counting on his family, and the hope of going home to them, to keep him sane. It doesn’t work out for him, which is part of his tragic storyline, but it grounds the story.
This is exactly why so many books have begun to bore me – I want a story where the main married characters are the strength of the other. I could never find it, so I am writing it now.
Nice discussion. I’m editing my first novel… it’s about a core family (father, mother, and son) which gets swept up in a struggle against an invading wizard and his army. The three end up getting separated and each has their own adventure as they overcome odds and try to get back together. It began as an attempt to write something for middle aged fantasy fans who have kids of their own and are sick of stories where kids know everything and adults are stupid. ?
Good article. Thank you.
Interrsting thoughts. My speculative fiction series The Kristian Clark saga is about a bachelor that finds himself protecting a growing family through the series as he tries to balance their needs and saving the world.
Some decades ago, Damon Knight wrote a critique of science fiction where he included Mark’s observation and stated that science fiction writers and readers were afraid of family and desperately trying to break away from their own families. As a founder of Clarion and SFWA, I suppose he would have known. He also said they were afraid of being powerless and therefore focused their stories on powerful people.