“[T]hose of us who, for whatever reason, don’t end up having sex, spouses, or children still have a role to play in the lives of those who do, and … we can make their lives better and have our lives made better by being with them.”
– “Luke Skywalker and Other Celibate Heroes”
In this month’s Carnival of Aces, sildarmillion invites us to think of ways other than attraction to conceptualise identity or orientation. This gives me an opportunity to talk about a concept that’s been floating around in my head, nameless and shapeless, for as long as I can remember. In this post, I will attempt to give both a name and a shape to this concept. The name I have chosen is “nother”.
To explain what a nother is, I should probably start by highlighting some norms about what it means to be an adult and how adults form relationships and families. When I was growing up, I was told that adults were divided into men and women, who formed families by marrying each other and having children together. Thus, I was presented with two main models of adulthood: men, who became husbands and fathers, and women, who became wives and mothers.
A nother (Get it? “A n other”?) is someone who doesn’t fit either of these roles. But – and this is the important part – nothers may still be part of familial or partnership structures with those who do. In defiance of conventional wisdom, which says that romantic couples should be self-contained and self-sufficient, nothers can form mutually-supportive partnerships with them. They may act as a third wheel, but not a redundant or unwelcome one. Rather, they make the relationship more secure and stable by providing emotional support, contributing material resources, or sharing labour.
To illustrate what I mean, here are some examples from fiction:
- In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie’s life goal seems to be finding a couple she can be a nother to.
- In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo could be seen as a nother to Sam & Rosie.
- In Rebel Without a Cause, Plato could be seen as a nother to Jim & Judy.
- In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Virgil could be seen as a nother to Duddy & Yvette.
- In The Sound of Music, Max is a nother, first to the Captain & the Baroness, and later to the Captain & Maria.
- The Once and Future King/Camelot switches between Lancelot as nother to Arthur & Guinevere and Arthur as nother to Lance & Jenny.
- In Star Wars, Luke could be seen as a nother to Han & Leia.
- In The Color Purple, Nettie could be seen as a nother to Samuel & Corrine.
- On Doctor Who, The Eleventh Doctor could be seen as a nother to Amy & Rory.
- On Sherlock, Sherlock could be seen as a nother to John & Mary.
- In the Frozen films, Elsa could be seen as a nother to Anna & Kristoff.
Notherhood can also be understood as a type of parenting role. Nothers can exist alongside mothers and fathers as supportive or even equal partners in child-rearing. For example, Nettie could be considered a nother to Adam and Olivia. Mary Poppins could be considered a nother to Jane and Michael Banks. From what I understand of it, David Jay’s relationship with his daughter would fit what I think of as “notherhood”.
Notherhood can be understood through a lot of different lenses:
- As an orientation: “Notherhood” can be seen as a kid of proto queerness. The idea of “gay” and “straight” people is a pretty recent invention, but the idea that men should marry women and become fathers and that women should marry men and become mothers is probably ancient – and thus people falling outside of this pattern must also be ancient.
- As a gender identity: If “manhood” and “womanhood” are traditionally associated with reproductive heterosexuality, “notherhood” offers an alternative form of identity outside of this binary.
- As a lifestyle: Rather than forming (hetero)romantic or (hetero)sexual relationships, nothers are more likely to be single.
- As a relationship preference: Because they’re less likely to be in romantic or sexual relationships, nothers are more likely to prioritise platonic relationships.
- As a social role: “Nothers” could be contrasted with “breeders”, i.e. those who have children. Instead of producing children, nothers may be childless, or they may help with the raising of other people’s kids.
- As a part of an intimate relationship: A “nother” could be seen as a kind of intimate partner, in contrast to “husband”, “wife”, “boyfriend”, or “girlfriend”. Nothers are less likely to be in romantic or sexual relationships with their partners – even if their partners are in romantic or sexual relationships.
- As a kind of parenting role: As noted above, “nother” could be seen as a third kind of parenting role, alongside “mother” and “father”.
Notherhood could be any of those things or all of those things. It might, for some, even be none of those things. I don’t want to impose too rigid a definition on notherhood, only to point to some things it might encompass.
I also don’t want to paint too romantic a picture of notherhood. In particular, three-way relationships come with plenty of hurdles and pitfalls. As many adults know, building a life with one other human being is challenging enough; add another human, and you’ve added a whole new set of challenges. Not every couple wants a third person attached to them, and they may feel taken advantage of if the nother expects too much of them. If the members of the couple feel differently towards the nother, the relationship may lead to tension between them. Notherhood can also be dangerous and exploitative for the nother. Because nothering relationships aren’t formalised the way spousal relationships are, the nother may find themself easily cast aside. A lot of paid positions – nannies, cooks, secretaries – could be seen as forms of nothering that involve high degrees of investment from the nothers but come with little security.
Over-all, I think our society is quite sceptical of notherhood. “Two’s company; three’s a crowd,” the adage goes. In terms of media, you don’t see a lot of positive representations of nothering relationships, and you do see some pretty negative ones. How many stories have you heard where a couple take a third person into their lives and find themselves living a nightmare scenario? Even in the fictional examples I listed above, notherhood is rarely represented as a viable lifestyle in the long term. Frankie gets rejected by her chosen couple. Frodo has to leave Sam and Rosie so he can go deal with his P.T.S.D. Plato gets shot by the police. Virgil is betrayed by Duddy. Mary Poppins stays only until Mr and Mrs Banks become more attentive parents. Max gets left behind when Maria and the Captain flee Austria. The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot leads them all to heartache and ruin. Nettie gets promoted to wife after Corrine’s death. The Doctor eventually loses Amy and Rory. Elsa realises she is an elemental spirit and goes to live in a different part of the country from Anna. Sherlock and the original Star Wars trilogy are actually the rare stories that end with their heroes secure and happy in nothering roles – and on Sherlock even this ending is tinged with tragedy.
And, though some of this reflects a heteronormative bias in our society, the idea of the “nother” is not an unproblematic one, and is even itself rooted in heteronormativity. After all, the idea of nothers as an alternative to monogamous, procreating, heterosexual, gender-conforming men and women can only exist as long as monogamous, procreating, heterosexual, gender-conforming men and woman are the norm. Many – perhaps most – people don’t actually fit this norm, and it’s one that we should be dismantling. Given that, it may not make sense to theorise “nothers” as a third discrete category. If there was a normative “notherhood”, it would be just as problematic as normative manhood and womanhood. Few people would fit it perfectly – while most people would fit it in some respect or to some degree. And we might well feel that we were better off dismantling it.
Besides, we already have words to describe most of the ideas encompassed by notherhood. Notherhood overlaps with a whole slew of other concepts: gender non-conformity, queerness, aceness, aromanticism, singlehood, celibacy, co-living, queerplatonic partnership, polyamory, chosen family, childlessness, alloparenting, friendship. Pretty much any situation that could be covered by the word “nother” could be covered with much more precision by one or more of those other terms – arguably making “notherhood” unnecessary and unnecessarily ambiguous.
So, why bother? If notherhood, as a concept, can only ever be vague, contentious, and potentially redundant, why conceptualise it in the first place?
If you know me, you may already have guessed at the answer.
Notherhood is a concept that I’ve been instinctively drawn to my whole life. Whether because of not quite conforming to gender norms, not quite identifying with normative heterosexuality, valuing friendship as much as romance, finding myself perennially single, or some other factor unrelated to any of these, I’ve always tended to imagine myself in nothering roles and to identify with characters I saw as nothers.
And I can’t help wondering how my life might have been different if, growing up, notherhood had been presented to me a viable adult identity. What would our world be like if we talked about husbands and wives and nothers? If it was common for children to have mommies and daddies and nonnies (nannies?). If we had Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Nother’s Day? If there were more positive representations of notherhood in the media? If there were support groups for nothers? If there were films, fashion, and pass-times marketed specifically at nothers? If there were ceremonies formalising nothering relationships and laws protecting nothers’ rights? Would that ruin notherhood? Or would it make it easier for people to become who they were meant to be and feel proud of who they are?
I’ve spent most of the past four years living with a married couple and their child. A lot of people might look at my situation and see it as a poor substitute for the “real” family I must surely want to have. But, the truth is, I can’t imagine a life-style I’d enjoy more than my current one. The arrangement hasn’t just been a steppingstone or a stopgap before I settle into more conventional marriage; it’s been the happiest and most settled period of my adult life. And, when the arrangement ends and I find myself on my own, I won’t see myself as a single woman – at least, not in the “seeks good man” sense. I’ll see myself as a free nother: self-sufficient, but also available if someone wants to take me up and make me a part of their life – in a non-sexual, non-romantic, non-procreative kind of way.
P.S. It occurred to me that, in French, “the nother” could be translated as “le nautre” – which would sound exactly like “le nôtre”, meaning “ours”. I like that.