Complicated Families

From birth order to rivalry, it's a family affair.

The American Family Diaspora

Who do you spend time with, friends or family?

On a radio call-in show recently, I heard from a man whose parents had immigrated before he was born. In his big family, everybody is always in touch-the grandparents, the siblings, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins and the grandkids. They look out for one another. Always. If the caller is in a city where one of his cousins lives and he doesn't have time to visit, he'll still phone to say hello. The distance between many American family members puzzled him. He wondered what was wrong with American families.

There's nothing wrong with American families. But there are at least two distinctive family styles. In the "regular" American family, relatives live all over the country; they love each other but don't yearn for each other's company. They meet on family occasions, and keep in touch, but they aren't comfortable with the intensity that intimacy brings. They believe they couldn't survive in the same town as their family.

Then there are families that prefer to be together. If they live in the same community-and they often choose to do this-they have regular dinners, outings, and are in constant touch. They like their friends, but given the choice-it's family. Many immigrant families, or families who have kept their Old World ways, belong to this group.

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What caused the Americanization of the old-style family? In the second half of the 20th century, we underwent an American Diaspora. The old intimate, intense, and difficult families dispersed. At least two major factors encouraged this Diaspora, economics and psychology.

In the booming postwar economy new and up-to-date housing attracted people to the suburbs. They left the cities-and their relatives--in unprecedented numbers. At the same time, growing businesses needed employees all over the country. Good jobs were available to people who were willing to relocate. Who would turn down a promotion to be close to Mom? Please. America became the most mobile society in the world.

Then the psychologists and psychoanalysts did their job-all in good faith, of course. In this period, families of origin were thought to be breeding-grounds of mental illness. Mothers were blamed for everything from schizophrenia, to homosexuality, to autism (check the old textbooks-this is true). Getting away was a step toward improving your mental health.

Today, some families are reconnecting. Neurobiology and genetics have given Mom a Get-Out-of-Jail Card, as we understand the biological and genetic roots of behavior. Our more sophisticated family systems theories cast a more forgiving light on family interactions. The shrinking economy has brought many people home, out of work and needing help. And the Baby Boom generation is waking up to the fact that their siblings, children, and grandchildren may be the people they need in hard times.

Relatives aren't any easier to get along with today, but we have greater incentives to shrug off their quirks and deal with our mixed feelings. It may turn out that coming home isn't such a bad thing.
We used to quote two lines of Robert Frost's Death of a Hired Man to emphasize the obligations-not the pleasures--of family.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
The next two lines of this great poem may sum up our new attitude:
"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

 

Jane Isay is the author of many books, including Secrets and Lies (Doubleday).

Jane Isay is the author of Secrets and Lies, Mom Still Likes You Best, and Walking on Eggshells.

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