“Do we know if she had family?”
Self-isolating in my bedroom, I finally watched Avengers: Endgame, and I found myself sniffling at the scene where Earth's defenders gather to bury Black Widow. The character had previously been portrayed in the Marvel superhero franchise as a tragic loner, the only girl in the gang, the spandex-clad supersoldier who never quite manages to get it together with Hulk or Hawkeye, whose infertility makes her a “monster”—the single woman without children who is, by definition, alone.
Until Captain America points out the obvious: Yes, he says, as the music soars. Black Widow did have family. “Us.”
This moment—the moment when the ragtag band of heroes realizes that they are one another's “real family”—is a pop culture trope that's still just poignant enough not to feel trite. Especially when you've been alone in your bedroom for a week, trapped in a body that frightens you, coughing yourself into a frenzy of frantic self-monitoring, with only your housemates to push lovingly if ineptly made mugs of tea through the door. As it has for millions of others, the Covid-19 pandemic has made me reassess exactly what family means. The idea of the found family is a cultural artifact whose time has thoroughly come—because so many of us are currently in the process of making, and remaking, our own.
In late March, a journalist friend of a friend called to find out what my specific found family in Los Angeles looked like. She was writing about people who were quarantining together with people they were neither related to nor sleeping with. That was us—my housemate and me, plus two friends who live alone nearby. We were all separated from our relatives by distance and disease; we were all very single. We weren't quite a traditional household, but we needed some way to refer to one another, so—since almost everything in the world right now feels like it comes from one of those alternative timelines in a late season of a derivative sci-fi TV dystopia—we called ourselves a “pod.”
Related StoriesIdeasWomen Have Always Worked From Home
IdeasPanic, Pandemic, and the Body Politic
Modern LoveHow to Not Completely Hate the People You’re Quarantined With
Emma Grey Ellis
I had met my housemate, a composer and singer-songwriter, years earlier at a house party in New York, all throbbing UV lights and thudding music. We instantly knew that at some point we'd be important to each other; that point came at the end of 2019, when I needed someone to share the rent on a sublease in Silver Lake with a janky Jack and Jill bathroom and a lemon tree in the flower bed. My other podmates are a sex-positive musician and therapist I know from Twitter and a strange young writer I met in the loo queue at our local coffee shop, where we got to chatting about our favorite radio shows.
The reason the pod came together was more accidental than profound: My housemate and I got bedbugs. Bedbugs are disgusting and expensive and exhausting, and require you to role-play your own private disaster movie, nuke most of your belongings and fumigate the rest. Coffee-shop writer boy was helping us ferry all our clothes to the laundromat; I was staying on my therapist friend's sofa to escape the tiny biting bastards in my bed. When the announcement came that LA was shutting down, we'd already been in such close quarters that if one of us had been exposed to the virus, we all had. We decided to pool our risk. Divvy up chores, entertainment, car runs. Make sure that, at any one time, everyone had enough snacks to stay sane and nobody was haring off to meet random strangers on Hinge. It made sense. That, at least, is what we told the journalist.
I thought it would be a quick background interview, that we'd show up halfway down a feature in the lifestyle section. A few days later, our picture was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times: “Easing the Isolation With Their Quarantine Buddies,” read the headline. Then, suddenly, we were doing interviews for local television and national radio. It was all getting a bit out of hand. Why, I wondered, was this a story at all?
The story that most of us are living is very different from the story we thought we were supposed to be living. We millennials, as well as several generations before us, were raised to believe that adulthood would begin when we found one perfect person of the opposite sex to settle down with. That's how it was supposed to work: You wait for someone with whom you can make a real family, and everything before or after is just dicking about. “When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal,” the conservative commentator David Brooks wrote in a recent essay in The Atlantic called “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” “We take it as the norm, even though this wasn't the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950.”
The nuclear family, as Brooks points out, was a historical aberration. It was only a workable way of organizing society when there were structures in place to make it possible. Structures like affordable housing, supportive local networks of extended family and friends, a generous welfare system, well-paying jobs that enabled at least one parent to occupy themselves largely with childcare—and a culture that largely shut women out of the waged workplace, meaning the role of wife and mother was the most that many of them could aspire to.
All of that, for better and for worse, has changed. Priced out of all of the usual markers of success, from parenthood to home ownership, a whole generation has built lives in the space between the story society wrote for us and what it actually made possible. Some of us live alone. Some of us live with partners, with parents, or both. A great many of us live with roommates (or housemates, as I like to call them, because I have never actually shared a room).
When Covid-19 came, the tune stopped in the great game of musical chairs that was our combined housing and relationship drama. Suddenly, we had to acknowledge that who we live with is who we are living with—whether that's our housemates, our extended family, our aging parents, our boyfriend's sister, our daughter's boyfriend, our married friends, or our recently divorced, high-functioning alcoholic colleague who moved in for a couple of weeks last January and is now the person we talk to most in the world. These are our family, in the original sense of the word, which derives from the Latin for “household.” Familia included your blood relatives but also guests, visitors, guards, servants, slaves—anyone who, by choice, circumstance, or coercion, was living under the same roof and to whom you owed some sort of loyalty.
Over the months of the global lockdowns, the concept of the “quarantine house” has crept into the cultural lexicon. Memes circulate asking which Marvel heroes or cartoon characters or Greek gods or famous writers we'd rather be stuck in a small house with, trying to fathom an unknowable future without murdering one another. Yet even as more of us are living in ad hoc households cobbled together in times of crisis, there is still a measure of cultural confusion whenever those households don't conform to familiar shapes. “Quarantine buddy arrangements are sometimes met with stern disapproval from those who adhere to a traditional definition of family,” wrote the LA Times journalist (who, I should note, was a delight to speak to—we still text).
Fewer and fewer of us have reason to adhere to a traditional definition of family. In LA, nearly half the adults are currently living with a nonpartner. About a third of the overall American adult population, and the majority of people between the ages of 18 and 34, live in a shared house. For all of them, the aspirational model of a married couple ensconced in benign stability with their kids, that single story of what love and commitment and security were supposed to mean—that's not their story. It's not mine, either.
Part of me has always known that my story wasn't going to end like a Disney movie, with wedding bells ringing and the credits rolling on the perfect couple behind their picket fence, happily ever after. But without that specific ever-after, was it possible to be happy? As a twitchy, morbid child growing up in a town outside London, I didn't think so—until one otherwise ordinary Saturday when I was 13 years old.
My mum and dad were splitting up, and my favorite place to go to shut out the world was the local indie cinema, where I saw a very strange film. It was in Swedish. It was set in the 1970s. It was about a suburban mother who escapes a failing marriage and moves in, with two kids in tow, to a ramshackle hippie commune full of communists, hedonists, and various flavors of ornery idealist all arguing about whose turn it is to do the washing up. The film was Tillsammans, directed by Lukas Moodysson; the title, in translation, means together.
Tillsammans turned my world inside out. I was watching my parents' marriage collapse and trying to make sense of what adult life was supposed to look like. I already had a nagging feeling that what my peers had planned wasn't going to work out for me. And there it was: 15 weirdos crammed into a huge house. They weren't living a normal life by the standards of 1970s Stockholm or early-'00s London, but they were together. It looked romantic. It looked free. It looked easy—as these things always do, from the outside, in stories.
Twenty years later, I've been living in communities and house-shares for the better part of my adult life. After university, in the early years of the Great Recession, I moved into a filthy flat share in London's Turnpike Lane, attempting to create some of that Tillsammans spirit. Sure enough, there were intense political arguments over the washing-up roster and ethical debates over how and whether to murder the terrier-sized rats that kept rooting around the bins. We soon learned that the fun of sharing space wears away somewhere between the first time you step in your flatmate's vomit on the way out the door to your minimum-wage job and the umpteenth time you can't sleep because the people you share a wall with are being loudly and relentlessly 23 years old.
After that, I moved in with a chain-smoking Scottish archaeologist and a couple of insomniac hackers in Mile End. Then into a flat in Hackney with two lesbian poets. Then there were the student occupations of 2010, and the Occupy camps in 2011, where I lived for months on end. (OK, so I've been a literal roommate exactly once: There was a commune in Willesden Green where I split a repurposed cupboard and a mattress on the floor with a sweet Australian goth, paid 450 quid a month for the privilege, and considered it a damn good deal.) It never occurred to me to settle down. For one thing, I couldn't afford to. All in all, between 2008 and 2020, I've lived in 35 places in five countries with, depending on how you count them, over 200 housemates, their partners, their eccentricities and their childhood traumas, attempting to make temporary homes together while we waited for our “real lives” to start.
The last commune I lived in, back in London in 2015, was a dilapidated former storage warehouse where, technically, two or three people were supposed to be living as “caretakers.” By the time I moved in, there were seven housemates, all between the ages of 22 and 34. Soon, as more of the downstairs hangar space got built out, there were eight of us, then 10, and usually a couple of extra reprobates crashing on the sofas. We had what so few young people in the capital had: space.
Not much of it, of course, and not fancy. The Victorian plumbing broke down every summer, and sharing a porta-potty with nine people really makes you think about the quality of your decisionmaking, as does playing the interminable game of identifying whose crusty cereal bowl/crusty boyfriend this is. There was a romance to it all, though, and there's a romance to it now, five years and 5,000 miles away, in quarantine lockdown with three people I barely knew last year.
“There's no heterosexual explanation for this.” Soon after our quarantine pod made local headlines, a Reddit thread found the story—and hundreds of strangers were suddenly wondering which of us were secretly shagging. This was in no small part because of the photo that accompanied the article, in which my fabulous singer-songwriter housemate draped himself over the rest of us in snazzy boots and a pair of tight shorts that were safe for social distancing but decidedly unsafe for work. “That's the queerest group of people I've ever seen, and I've spent a lot of time looking in mirrors,” one redditor wrote. “I don't think anyone with magenta hair is straight,” said another. I bristled. I'm as surprised as anyone else by my fondness for vanilla hetero sex, but that doesn't mean I don't want to have colorful hair and live in a puppy pile of queer weirdos.
Queer people have always formed “alternative families”; it can be easy, especially if you live in a nice liberal part of a nice liberal metropolis, to forget how many young queer people are still abandoned by their families, shoved headfirst and hurting into the deep end of an adult life they're not prepared for. But in the years since the financial crash, there have been more and more reasons for all sorts of people, queer or otherwise, to form alternative families.
I'm as surprised as anyone else by my fondness for vanilla hetero sex, but that doesn't mean I don't want to have colorful hair and live in a puppy pile of queer weirdos.
Wages have plummeted, rents have soared, and many of us have found ourselves living, out of necessity, in a way that would previously have been understood as a “lifestyle choice.” Single mothers are doubling up to form households where they can provide mutual aid and support. Young married couples struggling to afford mortgages are installing rent-paying friends in their spare bedrooms and garages. Adults are moving in with their friends' parents and grandparents. So-called co-living is a trend in the same way that tiny houses and cheap dates and dodgy home dyes are trends—because millennials are broke. The reason so many of us live with a housemate or two or five or six is not because we've collectively decided to tear up our parents' social norms—or not just that. It's also an economic necessity.
Then again, so is any family, at any time. The nuclear family, in its brief heyday, was fundamentally an economic strategy, one that made it easier to control the supply of workers and organize childcare and domestic work so that women were doing as much of it as possible for free. This arrangement no longer makes economic or emotional sense—and millennials know it. Almost half of us, after all, grew up with parents who were divorced, or in single-parent households. But the nuclear family remains the only form of family with cultural legitimacy.
Right now, there is a deep longing not simply for other ways of living but for those other ways of living to be acknowledged in culture and supported in society. Yet there's really only one place where that longing truly plays out: in fiction—and especially in genre fiction, which has greater permission to imagine other worlds beyond the everyday, the expected, the orderly and straight.
The trope of the found family has been around for decades. A bunch of misfits, thrown together by circumstance, finds a way to live and grow together. It works because it's wish fulfillment, including for the sort of people who grew up just wanting a group of friends to rely on. And because the dramatic possibilities are endless. So much genre storytelling kicks off by contriving a means by which to bring those disparate people together. They all meet in a tavern, or on a spaceship, or on the run from their robot overlords. They are members of the same army unit, classmates in the same supernatural university, superpowered teenage criminals in the same community service program. They might hate each other at first, but eventually they are enmeshed in one another's lives.
Women writers, in particular, have long been pioneers of the sort of futuristic novel that thinks creatively beyond the nuclear family as the base unit of human existence. Authors from Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler and Sheri S. Tepper to Marge Piercy, N. K. Jemisin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Joanna Russ, and Lidia Yuknavitch have set themselves to imagining alternatives to standard-issue happiness. So much of the time, that process involves creating new, alien kinship structures. New pods, new buddy systems—new “surrogates,” as the theorist Sophie Lewis calls them in her book Full Surrogacy Now. The surrogate family or family structure, in Lewis' poetic reclaiming of the term, replaces and improves upon those traditional, limited, patriarchal family forms with new and fluid networks of care.
In Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, a band of space renegades gallivants around the universe encountering various alien societies. My favorite are the Aandrisks, for whom it is normal to have three families in the course of a lifetime. First, there's the family you grow up with, the “hatch family,” who are not always your blood relatives. Then, as young people, you form “feather families,” the members of which produce the children but don't raise them, as they're busy building their own lives and having the sort of drama that most of us go through in our twenties and thirties. Finally, there's your “house family,” where you and other mature adults settle down to raise the children you're finally ready to nurture.
What if living with friends and strangers and parents and siblings wasn't considered a “failure”? Or what if it were a failure in a way that doesn't have to be abject? The pop philosopher Jack Halberstam speaks of “the queer art of failure,” which deliberately abandons those brittle models of success that were never made for us anyway. It's a way of life that “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.” There really is no heterosexual explanation for any of it.
A found family can break your heart just as much as a traditional one can. In October 2016, I turned 30 and threw a party in my London commune. It was a good party. Drinks were drunk, secrets were shared, unwise kisses were exchanged, and I found myself glad that this was what my adult life looked like. Three days later, the nine close friends I had been living with, including former lovers, put into my hands a seven-page, double-sided letter explaining, in excruciatingly detailed, painfully nonviolent hippie rhetoric, why I was a shameful waste of human skin and henceforth evicted from the home that was also my entire social world. It was a blow. I'd lived in situations that had broken down before, but I hadn't expected to be kicked out on my ear with no warning. I thought these people were my friends—my family.
The heartbreak was a physical weight. No romantic breakup, before or since, has hit me half as hard. I was not OK for a very long time. And almost the worst of it was lacking the language to translate that loss. If I had ended an engagement, or broken up with a long-term live-in partner, it would have been easier to explain the grief. My relatives were sympathetic but also relieved—they cared about me, and they hoped that now I might settle down into something more traditional, something more solid and secure.
I decided that perhaps they were right. Perhaps I had made a mistake by deviating from the story straight women were supposed to tell about their own happiness. Trying to live as if you were in the early days of a better nation was too painful, so I'd try to be normal, instead. I moved in with a dear friend who had just become a romantic partner, in a small flat by ourselves, in my hometown. It really did seem like a good idea at the time. We were both trying terribly hard to be normal, to be, in all senses, straight. To be square. To slice the soft and strange parts of our hearts into the clean lines culture demanded. Maybe, if we doubled down on doing the things we were supposed to do, we might be happy. We might be safe.
That was a silly plan. I soon found myself single again, in a house with my name on the mortgage thanks to a bequest from a relative. I started to furnish like mad, to stave off the gnawing loneliness. I knew that I was lucky. So why did I feel so miserable? Why would I have traded it all in—not for the perfect partner and the marriage and the mortgage, but to be back sharing a beaten-up bathroom and the bills and the chores with nine friends and their quirks and childhood traumas, however temporary, however insecure?
Here's the lesson I had to learn: “Traditional” nuclear families today are no more stable or secure, no more or less likely to lead to lasting happiness, than “alternative” households. In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut spends hundreds of pages coming to the conclusion that the purpose—or at least a purpose—“of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” The problem with found families is exactly the same as the problem with every other sort of family. There is no perfect structure, no single set of rules, that can guarantee that people will always be decent to each other, will never have growing up to do, and that nobody will ever get their heart broken ever again.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a group of high schoolers fight monsters and demons while attempting to live normal lives, before coming to the realization that perhaps normal lives aren't all they were cracked up to be. In the TV show's fifth season, the gang has to face down one of the most horrifying monsters of all: conservative relatives, who are unhappy with the lifestyle of a character named Tara because she is a lesbian and also, incidentally, a witch. “We are her blood kin,” screams her father. “Who the hell are you?” It's Buffy who says the obvious. “We're family.”
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, millions of people have been forced to confront the ways in which the “traditional family” can be coercive. Conservative estimates suggest that there has been a 20 to 30 percent increase in incidents of domestic violence around the world, as women in particular find themselves trapped with their abusers. Even before the lockdowns, 19 American women a week were murdered by their husbands or intimate acquaintances. The nuclear family, like any, can be a dangerous place.
It's not that the people you're bound to by blood, or any other bodily fluids, are superfluous, inevitably abusive, or, per Buffy, actively demonic. They're just not the only important relationships—and it's taking a global pandemic to make that clear to a wider culture that's for so long felt threatened by difference. Forced isolation has made us hyperconscious of our needs and expectations for cohabitation, and of the hope for improvement. Perhaps the real threat, now, is not simply the fact that a significant proportion of us might never form traditional families, but the prospect that some of us might prefer not to. That we might stop doing this because we have to and start doing it on purpose.
In lockdown, I've found myself calling on all the old social muscles from the commune times: the pantry mathematics of meal planning, of providing nourishing and interesting food for cash-strapped, scared people with dietary restrictions who just want something yummy for dinner. The difficulty of staying generous when the bathroom doesn't magically clean itself, and who do you think has been taking the bins out all this time, eh? The bin fairies?
We do fight. My housemate and I spent one memorable week having the sort of arguments that you might expect a neurotic writer and a neurotic musician to have when they're trapped in a small box together with a lot of work to do, for which one requires a lot of quiet and the other a lot of noise. There were tears. There was angry baking. There were quiet admissions that we've both fought, our entire lives, to find a way to live where being different and ambitious and creative and queer didn't have to mean being alone.
These fights took half the week. We spent the other half finding somewhere new to live together when our lease is up, because frankly this has been exhausting and important emotional work, and neither of us can be bothered to start all over again with someone else. My housemate annoys me more than almost anyone else I know, and if anyone ever hurts him I will hunt them down. When I came down with Covid-like symptoms in May, he was the one who forbade me from working on this essay and insisted I lie the hell down and watch stupid superhero movies instead. And that, I suppose, is what family means.
It means you love whoever is around to love. That doesn't mean you have to like them all the time. Love takes work. Living together takes work. Sick and tired of waiting around in the antechamber of socially sanctioned adulthood, millennials are setting up home right here. We are not waiting for our “real lives” to start. We may never have the security or stability we were raised to desire, but we can still have commitment and community. For me, this is my real life. These are the households and relationships where I have grown up, learned how to take care of myself and other people, had my heart and brain and favorite mugs broken. These are our real lives, brief and beautiful, stupid and unlikely, and we would live them far better if we were given permission—beyond the wish fulfillment of fiction—to believe in them.
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.
LAURIE PENNY (@PennyRed) is a journalist, a TV writer, and the author, most recently, of Bitch Doctrine. She wrote about fandom in issue 27.09.
This article appears in the July/August issue. Subscribe now.
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Happens Next?
- How to make government trustworthy again
- Coronavirus researchers are dismantling science's ivory tower—one study at a time
- Videoconferencing needs to climb out of the uncanny valley
- News at 11: Kid reporters tackle the coronavirus
- After the virus: How we'll learn, age, move, listen, and create
WIRED is where tomorrow is realized. It is the essential source of information and ideas that make sense of a world in constant transformation. The WIRED conversation illuminates how technology is changing every aspect of our lives—from culture to business, science to design. The breakthroughs and innovations that we uncover lead to new ways of thinking, new connections, and new industries.
More From WIRED
- Wired Staff
- Press Center
- Contact Us
- Customer Care
- Send a tip securely to WIRED
- Site Map
- Accessibility Help
- Condé Nast Store
- Condé Nast Spotlight