By Christine Colbert
When we think of family, we commonly imagine the average makeup: a set of parents, 3.5 kids, and maybe a dog or cat. But here in the Tetons, average doesn’t always apply. Living amongst this wild landscape inspires creativity, a quality that sometimes spills over into our concept of family as our circle of friends becomes a substitute, or additive, depending on your regional roots. Whether it’s a surrogate mother, a substitute brother, or a fatherly figure, many find that their friends are as close as or, in some cases, even closer than family.
That’s why living here is unique. You don’t necessarily need blood relatives to feel like you have kinsfolk in this outpost. For more than a hundred years, this region has brought like-minded people closer together. And maybe it’s because of this that the typical family doesn’t always include the traditional composition but, rather, an assemblage of individuals making a life together in this harsh but awe-inspiring region.
It’s a big-picture Thing
This quality brought Nancy and Michael “Mac” McCoy back to the area in 1995. The couple and their dog picked up and started a new life in Teton Valley, Idaho, where they’d met in the winter of 1973-74 working at Grand Targhee Resort. While here, their childfree path has allowed them to pursue adventurous careers offering extensive travel and reprieve from the valley. Mac’s work with Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit that aims to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle, requires him to take big blocks of time to map out multistate bicycle routes like the Great Divide. Together he and Nancy have cycled in Europe and organized trips for themselves and friends.
This sense of coveted freedom is also the case for Jackson-based couple Amy and Jeff Golightly. Without kids, they have more time to connect with their community and have fostered close relationships with a diverse group of friends. “Our life is really full,” Amy says. “It’s easy.” Being childfree doesn’t mean the pair are exempt from attending the occasional recital or engaging in the progression of their friends’ children, though—they are just not genetically obligated. Instead, they have created a family from the people they love to be around, in addition to immediate relatives. Through a combination of choice and chance, their circle consists of parents, friends, nieces, and nephews, as well as a couple of dogs. Children of their own are not part of the equation.
The McCoys also find family amongst their friends and neighbors. “It’s broader-based,” Nancy says. In fact, as the owners of Powder Mountain Press in Driggs, the McCoys launched Teton Family magazine in 2012, partly in an effort to try to expand the meaning of “family” in the region. And they have a good circle of friends they consider family, too, including a twenty-three-year-old godson who is pursuing a career in slopestyle and freeride skiing. Their chosen family—consisting of those they deliberately prefer to be around—is a big part of their lives. “You get the call when the baby is going to be born; you go stay with the family while they’re in the hospital,” Nancy explains. When there’s an accident, a loss, or a friend’s kid needs a ride to Jackson, they’ve enjoyed being a resource. “You can be as involved as you want to be,” Mac says.
It’s a (Relatively) Stress-Free Living Thing
Without children, both couples enjoy greater financial freedom. The Golightlys’ ability to switch careers when they’ve needed to has offered a huge reward. “Kids are expensive,” Amy says. Without the financial stress, “we’ve been able to do that which has called to us, instead of the dollar value it provided,” Jeff adds.
“I would say our life is simple, but that’s not necessarily because we don’t have kids. We do have our two dogs,” says Amy, referring to their canine commitments. “There’s a lower level of stress. We can spend more time focusing on each other and having time for ourselves,” she adds, noting the couple have maintained a strong relationship because of their childfree circumstances. There are no competing interests in the home, and they find it easier to take care of each other while fitting in a mountain bike ride or a day of skiing.
Animals provide a grounding influence for the McCoys, too. A long time ago they committed to always having at least one dog. “Even childless people find ways to tie themselves down,” jokes Mac, as their six-year-old American Field Spaniel, Eddie, dozes underfoot.
“We’re definitely not saving for college,” Nancy says. To that Mac adds, “We probably wouldn’t have moved here from Missoula [Montana] if we had kids, because the financial thing would have been a big part of it.” The McCoys are also grateful for their ability to have avoided corporate life. “Our stress level is a lot less than it would be otherwise,” Nancy says.
It’s a ‘Community Matters’ Thing
For most people who’ve settled down in the Tetons, having children doesn’t necessarily dictate their level of community involvement. There is no line of separation between those with kids and those without. Connections are made based on common interests rather than traditional family values.
Volunteering is a big part of the Golightlys’ life. Amy holds a spot on the board of two organizations: Mountain Bike the Tetons and Womentum. And she volunteers for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, all while serving as the associate director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. As the CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, Jeff also finds plenty of opportunities to get involved. He volunteers with the Rotary Club of Jackson Hole and the Center for the Arts. “We give of our time, but in a way that’s fulfilling for us,” Amy says.
The McCoys support their community by actively voting for local education initiatives (a big deal in Idaho), and also by donating their time to community issues that speak to their interests. Nancy spent almost a decade as a hospital trustee for Teton Valley Health Care and now volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in Idaho’s Judicial District VII. Mac was a founding board member of Teton Valley Trails and Pathways (TVTAP) and spent many years serving that organization.
It’s an Adventure Thing
Unlike other places, people in the Tetons don’t judge your concept of family. “There doesn’t seem to be as much of an expectation here to have kids,” Jeff explains. “There’s no look of surprise or pity when people ask if we have children. Instead, most people just want to go skiing on the weekend.” The Golightlys and the McCoys both feel that this unique area fosters acceptance of all kinds of lifestyles. “Here, people live for adventure,” Amy says.
“If someone doesn’t want to or cannot have kids, it’s not the end of the world, that’s for sure,” Mac says. “There are lots of positive aspects to it,” Nancy adds, apparent in the lifestyle they live, the jobs they’ve landed, and the adventure travel they’ve pursued. “I do think it was the nature of where we were and the opportunities presented to us that helped guide us … and now we’re looking at retirement,” Nancy says laughing, after already living a life of doing pretty much what she and Mac wanted to do.
Both the Golightlys and the McCoys would never trade their paths for any other. “A tremendous part of the people and the life here is that we can rely on friends to fill that family role,” Amy says. Having time to focus on what makes them happy is the biggest reward. Both couples cherish the feeling that many childfree pairs experience—freedom to surround themselves with people of all ages that truly fill them up. “We’ve been fortunate to pick a path that’s healthy for us,” Amy says. “I wouldn’t change it.”