What Is Family?

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.

Nuclear Family

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 HarrietFather 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.

If you want more, check out the US Census Bureau’s  annual  America’s Families and Living Arrangements  or  www.census.gov for the full report.

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?

 

Extended Family

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.

 

Four generations of my family, 2015. Sadly, most of them are here for a visit only.

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.

 

Three generations of Assem’s family home, only Assem and her husband are visiting.

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.

 

https://hubpages.com/health/Creating-your-own-Family-of-Choice

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? 

 

[box] Interested in reading At Home on the Kazakh Steppe? I hope so. This first link will bring you to my website where you can now listen to the first chapter of the audio book. You can read it too.

Click here for the PAPERBACK, audio, and eBook versions, which takes you to Amazon.

And, you can always order the print book from your local independent bookstore. Use ISBN 978-150-8767794 for quicker service.

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29 Responses

  1. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Interesting as always, Janet. I’d never heard the term “alloparenting” before, but it makes great sense. My daughters are lucky to have an engaged aunt and set of grandparents here in Boise, which makes a meaningful difference in their lives. This post also made me think, for the first time perhaps, about how harmful the isolated nuclear family model can be, for example, when there are things like alcoholism or substance abuse, mental illness, personality disorders, and other dysfunctions present. Ironic, in a way, that this was my very experience. I’d just never fully considered how the nuclear nature of the situation helped shape and solidify what it was, or that there were other viable models out there.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      One of the surprises for me in putting this post together, Tim, was in how much I had bought into the “nuclear family is best” ideology — and I’ve known the stats on domestic violence since the early 1980s. It never occurred to me (while I was in one) that I could do it differently.

      Sounds like, with your family now, you know you can do it differently and you are. How great is that!

      Thanks for starting us off today.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  2. Clive
    | Reply

    Another very interesting post, Janet. I recently became a grandparent for the first time and this has prompted a good deal of thinking on the nature of family – and a couple of blog posts (there may yet be more!).

    And congratulations on reaching 300 posts – I’m currently at 299 and am planning the 300th. It won’t be as insightful as yours, though!
    Clive recently posted…Interview With EsméMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Congratulations indeed Clive. Grandparenthood is the best — unless they are 600 miles away, like mine are. Then it’s somewhat painful. I hope your new little one is close by. I shall have to check out those blog posts soon. Thanks for the heads up.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Congratulations on your 300th post! Yes, you will make it to 400 and most assuredly 500.

    I like your “elastic” definition of family. I grew up with two families, each under a separate roof, but connected by blood (and love). You are fortunate to have your 88-year-old (?) mother living close by and stacking WOOD – wowza!

    By the way, I would not consent to be my mother-in-law’s maid. Great post, Janet, as always.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Jenna A Thirteenth BirthdayMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I had a great aunt who, when her twin sisters were born, was sent to live down the street with her aunt who had no children. She never seemed to think there was anything odd or troubling about that. Same with many of my students in Kazakhstan, where it is not uncommon for the same thing to happen. Whether that’s a problem or not depends so much on who is involved, not the actual structure. I know you know that. Thanks for checking in.

      As for my mom stacking that wood — tonight she gave me some of her homemade tapioca pudding she’d made. Yummmmm (with fresh raspberries on it)
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  4. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet. Interesting post.
    I’m glad you pointed out that the type of family in those old TV shows was an idealized version. I’m always bothered by people who long to go back to the “good old days” that never existed for many people. 🙂 Even within the U.S. there have been so many constructions of family–from 17th century Chesapeake blended families on. I just read an article in today’s papre about a TV show called “Pose,” which I haven’t seen, about African-American and Latina trans and gay women and men in 1980s NYC. They formed their own families.

    I wish we–or one of my siblings–had built-on an area for my mother to live in. It would make things so much easier for us now.
    Merril Smith recently posted…Beckoning Breezes: QuadrilleMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hey Merril. I’m seeing housing of the future including more of those “mother-in-law” suites that pop up here and there. Now I must go Google “Chesapeake blended families.” A new term for me. Thanks.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Much like the short geographic distance between you and your mom, my son and daughter-in-law moved 660 steps from our doorstep on July 1st. A strategic move as we await the arrival of LUNA BLEUE, our first grandchild. Kayley will have to go back to work on a part-time basis six weeks after Luna’s birth so Len and I will have the privilege of hands-on grandparenting.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Losing Your MarblesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      And what a privilege it is, too, Laurie. 660 steps, hey? You’ve paced it out, I imagine. How ideal for all concerned. I’m quite envious. Congratulations, for sure.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  6. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    Congratulations on your 300th post, each of them with a great message.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Sharon. That means a lot. Btw, I’m finally reworking those LEAP FROG posts; read the intro this week in my writer’s group. I’ll be in touch regarding that cover, soon. Thanks for the push.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  7. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    Back in the day I wouldn’t have dated a guy living in his parents’ basement unless there was some compelling [mature] reason for it. I’d give the same advice to a daughter today. It seems to me that where you live might be of less importance than who you are. Am I being idealistic?
    Ally Bean recently posted…A Puzzle: Flying Pigs & Swizzle SticksMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ally. Is there such a thing as “too idealistic”? I do think we (errr, me) jump to conclusions so often, without recognizing the bias involved. I definitely have had a bias for strong, independent men (which, my bias said, could never live with their mother). Certainly “in my day” that would have been cause for automatic exclusion. But I hope, were my hypothetical daughter to ask, I’d appreciate the possibility that it might well take a strong, independent man to actually be able to survive living with his mother. Thanks for joining us here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  8. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    Well, spending 21 yrs in the USAF and then another 21 working civil service I had many friends but not another family and moving so much and many times after my only son left home I am good seeing family once in awhile—whenever I talk about heading to Europe again my son says—see ya later—but his girlfriend tells me he says he would rather I stay close. We have lived within 20 miles of each other for the last 7 yrs—longest time since 1990. My husband and I like living with each other but would live with family if they needed us.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan. That’s 42 years! Then I realized that’s my career too. Eh, it’s just a number. When do you leave for Iceland? I plan to live vicariously through you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

      • susan jackson
        | Reply

        4 September, really excited–so much to see and do and then to end it all with a week in London and I rented a flat a couple blocks from Leicester Sq where the half price ticket booth is–woohoo so not far to go in the morning to get in line and I hope to see lots of WLMers in London and a friend that I lived next to when I lived in Lower Basildon and she actually came to my wedding in the states-she is coming for a day and we are doing a fun Tea on a bus going around the sites of London. I hope Judi Strange will be with us also for that.

  9. Pamela
    | Reply

    Happy 300th blog post. Impressive! As is this post about “family.” On one level, the idea of living intergenerational is lovely. But then, many family members “love” each other because they’re family, but really don’t “like” each other much. It would be tough to have to live with them, nonetheless. When I lived far away from my parents/family members while raising a family on the other side of the coast, my guy and I chose our “family” from friends nearby. That worked well. But now… now that I’m a grandmother, I find that I totally agree with living close, intergenerationally. Funny, that. We live within 10 minutes (not 100 steps) from our daughter and three kids, and find it enriching for all sides.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Funny that, how much our families improve in our eyes as we get older??
      And then there is always those “boundaries” to figure out.

      Thanks, Pam, for stopping in. Both my sons are in Ohio, 600 ++ miles away. I do believe that works well for them. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  10. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Thank you for the primer , Janet and congratulations on your 300th post. And I knew you when…!

    Family goes beyond family of origin for me. I cherish my family of origin but do not limit its definition to that. Family can be any combination of people who love and trust one another. Right now, my 95-year-old mother defines the staff at her assisted living facility as her family. She is twice blessed!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You did indeed, Kathy. You have been one of the regulars here since the beginning I do believe. I think I began to follow you before my blog started. And when it did, over you came. And I thank you. 🙂

      I’m so glad you mentioned the Family of Origin AND Family of Choice. For, surely, they need not be mutually exclusive. Silly me; I did make it sound like that. How nice that your mom feels that connected to the staff there. That must warm your heart.

      I just reread your post on the IWWG conference. I so hope to join you next summer.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  11. Stevie Turner
    | Reply

    Is there anything wrong with a guy who still lives in his parents’ basement? I’d say it depends on how old he is. My husband’s foster brother still lives with his foster mother and he’s 52! The poor old girl is 88 and still running around after him. There’s definitely something wrong there…

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      What is it with these mothers who keep doing for the sons long after their turn is up? Wonder what motivates her — and him for that matter! A classic umbilical cord story — most especially when it’s a metaphorical one. Thanks for stopping by, Stevie.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What Is Family?My Profile

  12. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    My youngest son still lives with us as does his family..He is currently building a house but we can live there as can his wifes mum…Thai famies stay together it is the norm…The young care for the older …Grandmothers look after the children they work …I actually like that families stay together 😀

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      How fortunate you are, Carol. That scenario was our goal when we first moved to Vermont. It’s not worked out for us though. Thanks for providing a view from your corner of the world.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Alice’s RestaurantMy Profile

  13. […] WHAT IS FAMILY?shared by Janet […]

  14. Brenda MacD
    | Reply

    Congratulations on 300th post. I am happy that we have options for who we consider family.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Me too. (Funny how frequently I find myself saying that again. It was once my nickname as a toddler). Glad you stopped by, Brenda.

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