Monday, October 18, 2010

Reflections on the family, otherwise known as "the anti-drug" (Part 2 of 3)



High divorce rates, child abuse and neglect, single-parent homes – these are only a few signs of the disintegration of the family in our time. Is this a sad occurrence? Certainly. Is it something that’s easily ignored? I don’t think so – people bemoan the trend all the time. And rightly so, I would say. After all, so much of society’s welfare depends on the stability of our families.

Many people consider this matter especially significant in light of the fact that American families were relatively stable for many, many years, right up until the 1960’s. I’ve heard different theories as to what could have hurt the American family so badly, and I’m sure there are at least as many remedial ideas.

In a nutshell, what I submit to you is that the so-called “nuclear family” fell apart because of one thing: non-self-sufficience.

Think about it for a second: What does “nuclear” mean? The first and most obvious thing that comes to your mind is probably stuff that blows up. Granted, even the best family situations can be…well, explosive. But the word nuclear also brings to mind high school biology lessons on the nucleus, which is the central part of a cell. I think that’s probably closer to the intended meaning of the word nuclear as applied to the family. So yeah, I guess you could say that the idea of the centrality of the family is inherent within its designation as nuclear.

Here’s the thing, though: The word nuclear can also denote isolation, sequestration, being cut off from contact with the surrounding world.

If we look at the history of humankind, we may come to find that people across time and in all cultures had a very different conception of the family, one that pretty much endured right up until the modern era. At this point in history, we can barely hear the word family without thinking of the nuclear family – that is to say, a husband, a wife, and the children they have together, all living within a single household.

This is most definitely a correct notion of the family – and, indeed, is the most critical component of any individual’s family (the whole concept of family is, I might venture to say, almost useless without it). And you do see both the existence and the importance of this family situation in pre-modern cultures. However, this is not all that you see.

Throughout most of human history, the place of the immediate family was within a wider network of familial relations. In tribal cultures, for instance, the tribe itself was considered an extended family. To try to conceptualize family apart from this context was unthinkable.

We can see traces of this mentality even today, in what we might call “pre-industrial” communities (for example, the Amish). Among some of these communities, it’s not too uncommon for three or more generations to live together under a single roof, with siblings and cousins relatively close by.

In modern Western culture, this type of thing tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Whereas the most basic and important family unit – consisting of the mother, father, and children – has/had the benefit of a larger support system, to which it has/had constant access, in modern non-industrialized/less-industrialized societies and in pre-modern societies, it’s basically on its own in the modern, mainstream West.

Let’s say you have three children. Given the state of the culture, don’t be too surprised if, when they are all married and have families of their own, one ends up living in New York, one in California, and another in Louisiana. You never know, one of them might even end up overseas.

When external support systems are removed from the immediate family unit, which then takes upon itself more than it should have to bear alone, what happens? Pressure is inevitable, internal hardships more intense, disintegration seemingly imminent.

But this was not always the case -- even in the modern West. For a long time, it was standard practice that the mothers would stay home while the fathers went off to work. Being at home for most of the day, the women in each neighborhood were able to network and foster communities that supported the family. Since then, the majority of women have entered the workforce, and neighborhood bonding has slowly dwindled. So, obviously, this particular opportunity to foster a larger support system for the so-called “nuclear” family has become attenuated.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we need to go back to the ways of tribal societies, much less that women shouldn’t go into the workforce. But we have to take account of what factors are affecting the modern family and figure out where we can go from where we are. This will be the focus of the third part of this post.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Ford.

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