Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Margaret K. Nelson's "Like Family: Narratives of Fictive Kinship"

Margaret K. Nelson is the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology Emerita at Middlebury College in Vermont. She is the author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times and the co-author, with Rosanna Hertz, of Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin.

Nelson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Like Family: Narratives of Fictive Kinship, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the last of five pages of introduction to a type of fictive kin relationships examined in this book. Page 99 finishes the characterization of relationships between what I call “unofficial children” and “informal parents” – better understood as relationships between children who have their own parents but spend much of their time (and sometimes live) with people who are not their parents. On this page I make three points: a) that these relationships “involve adults and children who live in different social class settings when they first meet; b) That “[m]any of these relationships cross lines of race/ethnicity as well”; and c) that “relationships between informal parents and unofficial children have the most uncertain and varied trajectories of the three sets of fictive-kin relationships.”

I don’t like to think that this page is a good representation of my book. It only deals with one type of fictive kinship. The other two I examine are relationships between peers or “like sibling” relationships and short-term relationships between “guest children” and “host families.” Even more unfortunately, the tendentious and boring parts of the book are found in its various introductory materials (as on page 99) where I categorize and explain these relationships rather than in the case studies where these relationships come to life.

I fear a reader who started here would put the book down without moving on to the next page. On that next page, a young woman with the pseudonym Nicole Evans tells her story. That story begins when she was a young girl, and a wealthy couple stepped in both to “save” her from negligent care and to offer her advantages well beyond those her parents could ensure. The chapter then explores Nicole’s deep ambivalence about being “rescued” in this way. In the following chapter, Nicole’s “informal parents” – whom I call the Nowaks – describe their own understanding of their complex relationship with Nicole. There’s lots to intrigue a casual reader in the description of the dynamic interactions between Nicole and the Nowaks.

Although many scholars have assumed that only marginal peoples engage in relationships in which they treat people who are not family members as if they were family, I argue that these kinds of relationships can be found among the white, middle class as well. The book provides ample evidence for this argument, in the examples among the seventy-five people I interviewed and in my reanalysis of other studies. In my conclusion I discuss how insights into relationships in which people think of each other as being “like family” help us understand the meaning and significance of kinship within a broad swath of the U.S. population.
Learn more about Like Family at the Rutgers University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Parenting Out of Control.

--Marshal Zeringue