The celebration of Mother’s Day at her school makes Stella worry sick. The little girl grew up with dad and dad and a host of loved ones she calls family. But who could she invite for her class parties that would fit in as a mom? Her friends ask her questions while the class works on the invitations and decorations. Who cooks lunch and reads bedtime stories? Who holds her close when she falls and embraces her pain? By the time the day of the event arrives, Stella knows who to bring to the celebration – her two fathers, of course, but also her Nonna, and her uncle, aunt and cousin, her own circle of love. And she’s not the only one. At the event, there are others with families as atypical as his. A friend arrives with two mothers, another with a grandmother. Reading by Miriam B Schiffer Stella brings the family (2015), a picture book for four to eight year olds, offers insight into the possibilities of a modern family – flexible, diverse – and quite unrecognizable from our communal life in India, where the idea of cisgender unity from mother, father and their children to the heart of a family remains unshakeable.
It’s a story that stuck with me long after my child outgrew picture books, and it’s this book that comes to mind when reading the Recent Supreme Court observations on family relations that broaden its traditional understanding. In an order granting maternity leave to a central government employee, who had previously used it to care for her husband’s children from a previous marriage, a panel comprising judges DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna observed that “atypical” families – “unmarried domestic partnerships or same-sex relationships” – deserved both legal protection and the benefits of social welfare legislation on the same basis as traditional families.
The observations open up possibilities for reimagining the relationship, still so tightly bound by heteronormative restrictions that anything outside of them is deliberately ignored. The Cambridge dictionary defines a family as “a group of people who are related to each other, like a mother, a father and their children”. But, in a way, it reflects our own imaginative myopia. Families are anything but typical and extend beyond the biological. They are chaotic, messy and, in our experience, circles of love or oppression, capable of building us up or breaking us down. Their folds have always embraced grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins, friends and relatives, near and far. It takes a village to raise a child, say neighbors who have been involved to some extent in raising each other’s youth, sharing football matches, school dropouts and admissions anxieties; we all have friends who are “like family,” who spontaneously step up whenever there’s a medical emergency or celebration at home, whom we turn to for advice or comfort.
Yet our tendency to turn the many types of families into recognizable versions of the traditional reflects our anxieties about an ever-changing future. The heterosexual family organization as the bedrock of our society is an anchor to which we cling because that is what patriarchy has taught us. What the judges’ observations push us towards is perhaps the recognition that with changing historical contexts that have made relationships far too diverse and complex to be locked into binaries, we need redefinitions of old roles. A wife may need maternity leave to care for her husband’s children from a previous marriage and their own; an LGBTQIA+ couple can be an excellent model of diversity; two single people unwaveringly committed to the child they share. Consider Pune resident Aditya Tiwari, who adopted a child with Down syndrome in 2016 when he was 28, and showed he could be both “father and mother” to his child.
The changing dynamics of the family in its most basic form are recognized in the NCERT Handbook for CBSE Standard IV Students. In a chapter titled “Changing Families” in Looking Around, the environmental studies textbook, three representative families are offered for children to discuss. Nimmi has had a new sister and her family is growing. The celebrations also take place in Nazli’s house. Her cousin is getting married, bringing a new member to the family. Tsering’s family, however, is sad. Her father’s promotion forces a transfer and the family will soon have to move to a new town.
The court findings make me imagine a fourth story, far in the future somewhere, of a young Indian child like Stella, with two mothers or two fathers, or just one, who will accompany her to a school party, the head held high, eyes shining with excitement and being pulled into the circle as one of his own.