In the current issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks writes an obituary for the conventional nuclear family, noting, in his lengthy chronicle of its demise, that the iconic totem it has always seemed to be in American culture and society in fact thrived only very briefly in our history, from 1950 to 1965.
After that, he writes, economic and cultural forces pulled it apart, much like economic and cultural forces had earlier in our history destroyed the infrastructure of the extended family. We’re left, he posits, without the literally innate we’ll-always-be-there-for-you support and connection with loved ones that we believed (Brooks says mistakenly) best served to sustain both individuals and their variously-defined communities.
I read Brooks’ cover story with considerable skepticism and a modicum of defensiveness as the co-creator of a nuclear family that has morphed via marriage and grandchildren into an extended family that I love deeply. I also bristled at the notion that the 20th century’s family ideal was single-handedly destroyed by either middle class women seeking economic and emotional self-fulfillment outside the home or by absent (incarcerated?) black men. And I wondered how much of the story he writes was compelled by the dissolution of his first marriage and the concomitant need to redefine — and normalize — his own family.
It doesn’t matter, really, where it’s coming from. It was provocative. What do we mean by “family” today and how do we make it work — in our psyches, our homes, and our communities, and as a nation? After all, what good is a “family leave” policy, if we don’t agree on what — or who — constitutes family? And what exactly are “family values?” Politically, economically, and/or socially, is it fair to prejudice a mother and father and their 2.5 biological kids over a group home, a commune, single parents, the unmarried, the adopted, non-parents, and the estranged? I might wish for everyone to share the benefits I have enjoyed as an active participant in my family unit, but I would never presume to compel them to live as I do to do so.
What do we mean by family today -- and how do we make it work?
Obviously, the article made me think about my family, and mostly about how it — and my ideas about it — have changed over the years. When I was first married I only knew the family I had come from and what seemed special about it (my Grandmother’s unconditionally loving presence) and what I never wanted to experience again (my father’s anger, among other things). My husband and I idealistically, foolishly, and arrogantly set out to right all the wrongs of our families of origin and create our own unique and wonderful family and insular family life. Needless to say, we made lots of mistakes, not the least of which was striving for some perfect ideal to which we assumed our children would conform if we just did everything right. Such assumptions carried quite a psychological cost for all of us, some of which is still being repaid.
But we grew and changed, my husband and I, and we loved fiercely, and we nurtured our four kids with everything we had and they are pretty wonderful adults despite our dysfunction. Their grandparents didn’t live with them as my grandmother had with me, but they watched us care for them as they declined. We welcomed their spouses, though not as unconditionally as they might have wished. “Adopting” an adult into a family is, it turns out, a process, one that took time, and required that we relinquish even more of that damned perfectionism in the service of our child’s happiness. They made good choices. Welcoming a grandchild, on the other hand, required absolutely nothing more than our unbridled love.
And then, our daughter stretched us and our definition of family, again, when she and her husband fostered a beautiful infant girl they hoped to adopt through the state’s child welfare system. Where does she come from? Who are her parents? What is her gene pool? What are the risks? What if she’s been damaged? How will she fit in? Every single question was irrelevant in the face of our daughter and son-in-law’s decision and their fierce love. And my Heart ultimately overruled my Head’s doubts and worries to enfold the child in our family, to love her, too. How I wept when the system took her from them and from our family nine months later and returned her to the birth mother they were giving one more chance to make — and keep — her family. I grieve still today for the what-might-have-beens for this child, had she escaped her mother’s addiction, poverty, ignorance and desperate aloneness — she had no family left — but, again, can we compel any other family to define their family as we define ours? I think not. For that matter, our daughter has tried, with limited success, to fit herself into the birth mother’s family, as a decidedly unconventional aunt, caretaker, godmother, or resource who might, someday, be able to “be there” for the child, if need be. Family, we are still learning, comes in many forms, especially when it is expansive and loving.
Family comes in many forms, especially when it is expansive and loving.
But sometimes that doesn’t work. A dear friend’s mother died when she was 13, and her father married a certifiably evil stepmother with four children despite his own four adolescent children’s expressed wishes that he not. The new couple had two more children (a total of 10!), and when her father suffered a stroke, this young woman, then serving in the Peace Corps, returned home to help care for her half-sisters while the stepmother sat vigil at the hospital. For a year. She was given a closet in the stepmother’s McMansion to live in, and trinkets for Christmas when the half-siblings got jewels and trust funds. Why are you so good to these people? I asked her once. And she said, “This is the family I have now and I am trying to make it work.” She tried for at least a dozen more years, maintaining helpful big sister relationships with the half siblings and the step-siblings even after the wicked stepmother divorced her father, leaving him disabled and penniless (and still cruelly inattentive to his first four children). “This is the family I have and I’m trying to make it work.” Those scars are mean, salved only by time and by the creation of her own nuclear family — her husband, and their two boys.
In a way, that’s what Brooks suggests as well: that we play the family hand we’re dealt, alter our definition of family, set our tables with more places, share our love and resources more generously and far less judgmentally, and , that we seek out and forge (his word) new relationships that can provide the support and connections we once attributed exclusively to family. He says, in effect, that while idealizing the nuclear family was a mistake, replicating its benefits, especially for children and for our society, is not.
While we would never use the word, many of my peers in this third third are the matriarchs of their families now. We eschew the power our mothers might have wielded in the family a generation ago, but we continue to devote ourselves to it. We maintain the connections and relentlessly hope everyone is happy (OK, so that’s a fool’s errand!), and often still find much of our meaning and purpose in what we helped create. We are grateful for the ways our children and grandchildren share their lives, and their families with us, even as we are really grateful not to be in charge of all things quotidian and/or profound in our nuclear families anymore.
I don’t accept Brooks’ headline that the nuclear family was a “mistake,” but I will applaud his newfound awareness that there are (and always have been!) many different ways to be — and to define — family.
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by Ann Sentilles
March 2nd, 2020