At the end of last week’s blog post on World Population Day, if you recall, I wrote, “It’s a cultural thing.”
Here’s what originally followed (before I deleted it):
I know in many countries family is more extended, with multiple generations welcome under one roof. Not so here in the US. Independence is our birthright (we believe) and adult children, particularly men I find, are viewed suspiciously if they continue to live with their parents.
Think of dating sites: who would agree to date a man who was still living at home? That’s interpreted as never having cut the umbilical cord.
That independence we all revere, coupled with the economic realities of the real world, got me thinking how stuck we are on the nuclear family idea. What’s that about?
So I decided to write about “Family” and see what came up, leaving behind the problem of that young adult son embedded in the finished basement room. Really — do we need to go there?
WHAT IS FAMILY?
There are, essentially, three family configurations — nuclear, extended, and family of choice. If pressed, I could condense them into two: family of origin (nuclear and extended family) and family of choice. But nah. Let’s look at the three.
The nuclear family is not that old in the larger scheme of things. It came of age in the Western world with the industrial revolution. The shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, employment changes, urbanization, career moves, suburbia … there were many forces undermining the more traditional, ancient really, family unit of multiple generations, aunts and uncles (extended).
The Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, or Leave It To Beaver set (these TV shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s) served to reinforce the “normalcy” of the nuclear family as The Way. And so, here in the US, the nuclear family consists, stereotypically, of two parents, two or three kids, and a dog.
Actually, the average size of the American family has been hovering at 3.13 for the past decade — would that be two parents and 1.13 kids or one parent and 2.13 kids? I don’t know and, for the purpose of this post, I refuse to care since the statisticians totally ignored the dog.
And, while 69% of America’s 74 million children live in families with two parents (as of 2016), that figure is down from 88% in 1960. Yes, families are changing.
There are downsides to the nuclear family configuration. Stress, burn out, exhaustion, poverty come most immediately to mind as nuclear families are isolated from those resources that extended families enjoy. Did you know that violence is also more prevalent in nuclear families than in extended ones?
When I lived in Kazakhstan, “the extended family” ruled. And ruled in a way I’d never thought of before. Here’s how I wrote of it in my memoir:
A Kazakh tradition traced back to Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, the youngest son has the responsibility of caring for his parents until their deaths. Of course, mothers tend to outlive fathers, even in Central Asia, so the new wife is often considered her mother-in-law’s maid.
Twenty pages later, during our vacation together in the summer of 2005, I return to the theme:
If we were Kazakh, Jon—as my younger son—and Jenna would be living with me, destined to care for me for the rest of my life. I smiled, realizing that although I missed my various family members, I still preferred my more independent American way: separate, individual lives, coming together now and then, in and out, like an accordion.
But aside from the younger son issue, I’ve become a convert to the multiple generations mind set. It’s mostly practical. My mom, who lives maybe not under our roof, but within walking distance, not only stacks our wood for us, she’s always willing (and eager) to foster Sasha and watch over our chickens (not so eager on that last one, actually, but willing).
And, I find when there’s a genealogy question or a memory to clarify, it’s nice having her so close by.
I haven’t found many extended families up here in Vermont. As I sit and ponder a bit, I realize I can think of only one older woman whose daughter and son-in-law live with her, but on a separate level.
I wonder if she’s the youngest daughter? Nah, just kidding.
Family of Choice
Those of us who grew up in the 1960s heard the term “family of choice” often. This was in reference to that family we create, through choice, that nurtures us, supports us, and cares for us in that unconditional way families are supposed to. But many don’t (see my caveat on the nuclear family above).
Some use the term to imply that everyone is under one roof. I do not. I believe we can all have “families of choice” we belong to, share holiday meals with, turn to for support and laughter.
Within this broad category of family of choice, I’ve discovered a new family system: alloparenting. It’s particularly suited to young mothers. Here’s a link from a Big Think dot com article on alloparenting and another from Motherhood In Point of Fact dot com.
By the way, my little primer on “Family” here is also my 300th post. Yay! Will I make it to 500?
How about you? What’s your view of family? Back in the day, would you have dated that guy still living in his parents’ basement? How about today; would you warn your daughter about him?
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