Whaaaat? No more economy blogging? Well… I admit, I still have a couple of ideas and thoughts on the economy that are worthy to be blogged about, but I feel I don’t want to become too limited by writing about a single topic all the time. Plus, today I made two very interesting experiences that stirred up the following question in my mind: For me, personally, what are the building blocks of “family”? But first about my experiences…
My boyfriend, who is originally from the Philippines, told me that I had been invited to join his aunt and uncle’s family at a one-year commemorative service for the late mother of his uncle. When I arrived at the family home, I was surprised to find out that the service wasn’t to be held at the local church but rather at their house. And the priest, a friend of the family, was picked up at his place specifically for that occasion. Naturally, not everyone who had been at the funeral service the previous year appeared–the house would also have been too small–but I was again awed by the fact that not everybody who joined in the hour of prayer was part of the “most immediate family” (although among Filipinos that might be a much wider circle). Then again, I myself was also invited, which reminded me of the first observation of the day: family is not a “rigid” concept, something that is seen the same way in every culture, maybe even something that is differently viewed and interpreted throughout the USA, at least when it comes to “who is family”. Let’s just say that I am extremely grateful that I have been welcomed and, in a way, been “inaugurated” into their family!
The second experience occurred to me out of sheer luck. On my way home I had to take the Staten Island Ferry, and while I was climbing the steps from the Yankees Stadium into the St. George Terminal, I saw a woman with an obviously heavy suitcase who I asked if she would accept my assistance. She would, and on my way up those steps I began a conversation. As it turned out, she was on her way to work, a job in which she is helping foster parents doing the best they can in situations with children from socially and behaviorally difficult backgrounds. My interest was kindled–both of my two older brothers are working in this very field: assisting children and their families in situations where external advice and support due to social or behavioral problems is either requested or required by law.
During the conversation that ensued, which made the time that I had to wait for the ferry as well as the ride to Manhattan seem to pass in mere minutes, we touched many topics. And while the following thoughts are naturally not a complete recollection of the entire conversation, I think they capture the gist of what was said quite well:
Some of the more central elements of family have to be mutual respect, care, and interest as well as structure and dependability. When people who are, at least in the more common case of families not entirely out of choice, living together, forming a unit, it is important that each member of that unit shows respect for the other members and their situation. Equally, it is essential that in cases of distress care and support should be given to those who need it, and that to determine or rather detect those cases, a general attitude of interest for each member has to be present. In fact, I would go as far as saying that these three elements are probably the basis for any form of relationship, at least any relationship that works and lasts, and that not only refers to personal but explicitly also includes business relationships. But on top of these, it is important that a family also provides structure. Instead of having to constantly negotiate meal or meeting times, chores rosters, financial obligations and allowances, plus a general code of conduct, families usually have–in most cases unwritten and not even necessarily ever spoken-out-loud–rules, almost-laws that each member is supposed to obey.
Out of the discussion came the thought that one of the issues I perceive in “unhappy families” is that those rules are, in fact, not very well developed (so they exist), or that they are dominated by either the parents, such as in an authoritarian household, or the children, families where parents are over-indulging their offspring to the extent that those children have little reason let alone the chance to ever learn that the contract underlying a functioning social relationship should never be too demanding or disadvantageous for one of the sides, because the relationship will then sooner or later break apart or become inefficient.
To be clear, I think that love and sacrifice are equally important elements of family, like parents being there for their children, no matter what, who will undertake anything and everything to ensure that “their next generation” will have the best possible foundation available for their lives. But as much as being willing and able to sacrifice might be, if the resolve and oftentimes action shown by parents in form of a sacrifice on their part is not paired with a mutually agreed-upon “social contract”, then I do not find it surprising that parents might complain about their children who, after everything that has been done “for them”, are ungrateful or lack respect. The same is, however, true for children who complain that their parents are never available and don’t show enough interest in their lives, by which I do not only mean practical outcomes but also the internal struggle in children’s lives as well as their emotional well-being.
The funny thing is that, once this contract becomes “visible”–that is, the members of the family actually talk about what should and what should not be part of the contract–many conflicts seem manageable at the very least, even if some solutions might require “thinking outside of the box”: for instance, I remember that when I was about 9 years old, my entire family once went to some group therapy sessions in which we were asked to role-play some of the more typical conflict situations that occurred, an activity followed by a feeling of amusement about the absurdity of our own behavioral scripts–and insight!
Unfortunately, our current way of living–including the mantra of ever-increasing productivity and economic growth–simply does pose many problems for a small-income or single-parent family. What to do when school ends at 5 in the afternoon, but the mother has to work until 7:30pm to make ends meet? Well, obviously the mother cannot simply abandon her job to “fulfill” the contract: in my opinion at least, a younger child has the somewhat reasonable expectation that a parent or guardian will be available for supervision and support during the day. But to simply tell your kid, “mom will be home at 9, just watch some TV when you get home” doesn’t seem like the solution of choice either… When the mother then does come home late and something happened during the hours the child was home alone, both mother and child might end up playing a round of the “who’s-to-blame” game. An equally fruitless as well as predictable endeavor: possibly a few moments of pleasure from vindictiveness and vengeance but definitely and eventually a lot of frustration and resentment on both sides!
Looking back on my own childhood, I once again can only say that I count myself as extremely lucky. After just having returned to working as a teacher once my two older brothers could be left in the care of a nanny for at least a few hours at a time, my mom unexpectedly got pregnant again, with me–which is a story in itself, and I want to do it justice, so I’ll tell it some other time… Suffice it to say, my mother decided that she would retire from being a teacher and become a full-time housewife instead. That meant that I grew up with the secure knowledge that when my day at kindergarden or school was over, someone family would be home, usually waiting with a freshly prepared meal as well as the true interest in and support with whatever was going on in my life at the time. On the other hand, my dad, while maybe being a quantum unorthodox and unfinished in his child-rearing methods, would always allow questions, try to explain the rules he sought to implement, and share his views on things with the whole family.
This combination, a dependable structure, full of loving, kind interest and support, paired with the effort to learn, improve, and then teach how to communicate and negotiate this social contract that defined and still defines our family, is probably why, to this day, I count each and every member of my immediate family to those people I would sacrifice literally everything for.
And, as a last remark: as much as I endorse the somewhat conservative idea of a family being a couple of two loving people caring for the children so as to educate them and help them develop a good moral character of their own by providing the necessary framework, I simply fail to see why a gay couple, two men as much as two women, would be unfit to meet the challenge. Quoting from Mitt Romney’s website about values:
“The values that Mitt Romney learned in his home have enriched his life immeasurably. With his parents’ example before him, he married, had five sons, and now basks in the joy of eighteen grandchildren.
Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom. It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization. (…)”
If only he would have ended there, and I couldn’t have said anything against it. What I find very sad, however, is that it doesn’t say what those values are and why gay couples would be unfit to pass them on:
“(… continued) That is why it is so important to preserve traditional marriage – the joining together of one man and one woman. As president, Mitt will not only appoint an Attorney General who will defend the Defense of Marriage Act – a bipartisan law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton – but he will also champion a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.”
If he refers to (character) education, I must say that I am very disappointed to see that the page on his site about education doesn’t seem to mention the role of functioning families at all–I hope this doesn’t imply children are supposed to learn what it means to uphold and respect a social contract at school, a little late I would say…