An ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship" goes the Spanish proverb, but you can't prove it by me. The only child of a single mother who was also an only child, I grew up a continent away from anyone who could even remotely be called kin. Although I can't have children, and my husband's kids reside far from us, I could be living smack in the middle of "The Waltons," so wide and deep are the connections among the people I love and the obligations we share.
If Census Bureau statistics are right, my life may look something like yours. Only about 15 percent of Americans live in a "Leave It to Beaver" family, in which a married couple raises their biological children. Today's family might have one mom or two, or, for that matter, two dads. Their babies could arrive via one of those assisted reproduction techniques with the beguiling acronyms—IVF or GIFT or ZIFT—or with the help of sperm or egg donors or a surrogate's pregnancy. There are "blended" families with children from past relationships, children adopted or fostered, grandparents raising grandkids. Regardless of type, the strongest are wrapped in a supportive net woven of community and extended relations.
Social scientists at the turn of the last century talked about "kinship systems" in terms of blood relation, but modern researchers increasingly look to interdependence created through personal alliances to explain how we organize our deepest bonds. Mine have been forged by marriage, through shared work and school, mutual spiritual beliefs and artistic passions—and all have been tempered by years, tears and a lot of laughs. Without them, what would life mean?
As Jane Howard, biographer of anthropologist Margaret Mead, once said: "Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one."