How Can We Define 'Family'?

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“Love Wins”

In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across America, ruling that marriage was a right, no matter one’s gender or sexual orientation. For many, this ruling not only carried with it the celebration of love after decades of activism but also the possibility of new legal benefits.

“Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits.” —Chief Justice Roberts

For numerous LGBTQ+ families, navigating the legal waters of paid family leave post-2015 has not been a breeze. Many companies still operate under policies that were originally designed for cisgendered, straight couples. When paid leave is provided it’s usually through short-term disability policies which only cover the birth parent, leaving adoptive parents out.

Nuclear Families vs. Chosen Families

Under the United States Department of Labor, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act FMLA which all parents rely on for job security up to 12 weeks after birth or adoption, but the FMLA doesn’t guarantee paid leave—some regulations that make it harder to qualify for paid leave are:

  • You work at a company with more than 50 employees within 75 miles of your workplace
  • You have worked there for at least 12 months
  • You have worked there a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past year

40% of employees do not meet all criteria for coverage under FMLA.

There is a long-standing misconception surrounding non-nuclear family structures that, if someone is not a genetic parent to their child, that they are not technically parents and therefore are undeserving of parental leave coverage.

“I had people at work even tell me I didn’t deserve to be tired because I wasn’t his ‘real’ mom […] Genetics don’t mean shit. Biological or not, every parent deserves time off to bond with their kiddos.” —Trae, queer/genderqueer, therapist (Pennsylvania)

The problematic gendered language surrounding family leave has also negatively impacted gay dads, who are forced to use sick time or vacation days—unpaid time off—to care for their new child. While parental leave is often available for men, it’s difficult for many to take it for fear of being looked down on by their superiors or facing negative career consequences.

According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), for more and more families in the US, chosen families are becoming the norm, not the exception. CAP concluded that paid leave is a necessity that would greatly benefit two marginalized communities—LGBTQ+ people (especially those who live at or below the poverty line) and those with disabilities.

A recent study has found that LGBTQ+ families will see a dramatic growth in the near future, with 63% of LGBTQ+ millennials considering having children or expanding their families. With this upcoming surge in diverse families in the workplace, employers must seriously consider the language surrounding their leave policies and the benefits they currently offer. Many LGBTQ+ organizations are lobbying for more inclusive language to expand the definition of a family. If a company’s policies are exclusionary and their benefits limited or lackluster, these diverse employees will be less likely to return to work after their leave.

The Bottom Line

As diverse families become more common in the workplace, employers must re-examine their policies surrounding paid family leave and what the contemporary definition of ‘family’ has become.


Less than half of LGBT Americans whose employers do have parental leave policies say they’re equally inclusive of childbirth, adoption, or foster care. Only 45% of LGBT workers report having access to parental leave policies. — HRC’s 2018 LGBTQ Paid Leave Survey

Providing a healthier, more inclusive workplace and better benefits not only results in a healthier home and family life for employees but also holds the promise of happier and productive employees. Now is the time for companies to reevaluate language used in outdated policies and expand their language to accommodate the new inclusive meaning of ‘family’.

About Sparrow

Sparrow handles all leave-related paperwork, acts as the employee’s guide throughout the process, and helps to ease the transition as employees prepare to go on leave, and as they prepare to return to work. We provide software and a dedicated concierge for you and your employees. We cover: short term disability paperwork, legal matters, salary verification and more. Whether your company has 5 employees or 50,000, Sparrow saves your team time (20-40 hours per leave), money (up to $20,000 per leave), and headache.

Sources and Further Reading:

Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide

Here’s What Parental Leave Is Like For LGBT Families

State Family and Medical Leave Laws

Paternity Leave 101: Laws, Rights, and Other Basic Things You Should Know

Wage and Hour Division (WHD)

The Employer’s Guide to The Family and Medical Leave Act

FMLA is Working

People Need Paid Leave Policies That Cover Chosen Family

If You’re Queer and Not Angry About the State of Paid Family Leave in This Country, You Should Be

The Risky Business of Paternity Leave

America is no longer a nation of nuclear families

LGBTQ families poised for ‘dramatic growth,’ national survey finds

A new law gives NYC workers paid family leave for anyone they define as family

Mandatory Paternity Leave Is An Investment In Career And Family

2018 U.S. LGBTQ PAID LEAVE SURVEY How Parental Leave Policies Are Short-Changing Gay Dads

Supporting LGBT staff: Family-friendly leave for same-sex couples

Queer Families Still Struggle to Access Leave

Policy Recommendation: Paid Family Leave