Families

Jun. 18th, 2013 07:00 pm
liv: bacterial conjugation (attached)
[personal profile] liv
So a friend made a locked post about definitions of family, and it reminded me of several things that have been in my mind recently. I'm not sure this is going to be very coherent, just a bunch of stuff.

The OP talked about biological and emotional connections, and how hard it is for our culture to handle the kind of relationships that don't quite fit in to either category (step-parent, sister-wife). (Zie acknowledges that the terms aren't ideal; this isn't about quibbling about the word "biological".) I've been toying similar sort of thought which I somewhat cynically call the humours theory of relationships: there are relationships which are based on blood, ie what in modern times we'd call genetics, and there are relationships which are based on semen, ie sexual relationships, preferably those modelled on the obvious phallocentric concept of what counts as real sex. And nothing else really matters.

Part of what I'm referring to with the humours theory is about being a society that assumes and is built round nuclear families. I don't have enough anthropology to discuss this at a very profound level, but the more I learn the more it becomes clear that this centrality of nuclear families is not the default, as I imagined when I was growing up, but rather an extreme historical and cultural anomaly. Thanks to a very intense campaign over the last couple of decades, we seem to be coming to a consensus that a nuclear family can have two adults of any sex, but it's still only a family if it's two adults who are in love and make a public commitment to an exclusive sexual relationship, raising children from birth to adulthood as a self-contained household. It's still a bit suspicious if there isn't a clear division of roles between breadwinner and primary caregiver, even if we're a bit more relaxed about the rule that the former must be male and the latter female. This broadening out is a good thing, it's unquestionably progress, but it still values only one particular narrow model of what a family is.

I could make a very long list of all the types of relationships that are excluded by this nuclear obsession. I tend to get exercised about the lack of acknowledgement of significant friendships that aren't sexual, and Queer relationships that can't be shoehorned into "just like a normal marriage except with two men instead of a man and a woman". But actually it's all kinds of things, it's extended families and blended families and multi-generational families and families created by complex adoption and fostering. Households that are not families, like a bunch of not conventionally partnered adult friends living together, as well as families that are not households such as my own long-distance relationship. Adults who need substantial care and aren't either breadwinners or home-makers. I am really fed up with politicians from both sides of the aisle going on about "hard-working families". Their definition of family is ridiculously too narrow, and their definition of hard-working appears to exclude any kind of care work other than that performed by parents for minor children. Not to mention the obvious glaring gap in excluding from civic life everybody who isn't part of a family for any reason.

The other thing that's excluded from humour-based relationships is second-degree connections. The relationships that exist out of necessity between the various people who are intimately connected to the same individual. In-laws, yes, have a clear social and verbal category. But what about friends of partners, co-parents of the same child who are not themselves in a romantic relationship, the poly concept of metamours: partners of the same person who are not themselves in a direct romantic relationship; this is relevant to monogamous people as well because a relationship may well exist between someone's ex and someone's current partner, depending on circumstances. As well as that, I don't feel like we have good language for the broader groups or networks created by multiple relationships between individuals where some pairs have relatively loose connections. It's politically incorrect to say "tribe" but I would like some way to discuss the reality of such groups, which may not be voluntarily chosen by all members but still affect them in both positive and negative ways.

One unexpected source of division between me and [personal profile] jack is that I have a much larger family than he does. On one level this is completely self-evident: duh, I have three siblings and he is an only child. But it's more than that, it's that I regard my parents' siblings, their partners and offspring, and in many cases my parents' cousins, their partners and offspring as family in a way that [personal profile] jack just doesn't. My family of origin is on some levels a classic twentieth century style "nuclear" family; my parents remained single until they were 30 or so, and then they married eachother and have remained in a monogamous relationship since then, and during most of that time my father worked at a professional job and my mother ran the household, cooked, looked after us four kids and did lots of volunteering for community orgs. But in other ways, we haven't followed the classic pattern of nuclear families, because that's more than just a breadwinner spouse and a home-making spouse running a household with their genetic offspring.

The typical nuclear model, I think, also includes something about independence, there's an expectation that relationships between parents and children more or less cease (or at least fade very much into the background) when the offspring reach adulthood. My mother lived with her parents or other relatives for most of the time until she married, which is increasingly unusual in our society, indeed it's a frequent insult to insinuate that an adult is still living with their parents. Conversely, my mother's mother has lived with her for most of the last two decades, and was therefore part of my family as an older teenager in a way that grandparents aren't expected to be in the typical nuclear arrangement.

The idea of the nuclear family as a completely self-contained unit also means that the younger generation move away geographically as soon as they can, and this pushes sibling relationships to the background for adults. That's not entirely the way with us; my siblings lived together as adults for a tranche of time, and generally we have more contact than many other sets of siblings in their 30s that I know, though we are less close than some. It most certainly wasn't the way with my dad; when he was growing up, his parents lived on the same street with his mother's brother and several of his father's seven siblings and their offspring, and all the cousins were more or less jointly raised by the various sets of parents without much distinction between them, rather than in separate nuclear families. My parents' experiences are the reason why I count many of my second cousins and once-removed cousins as close family, not because I'm gratuitously showing off the depth of how well I know my family tree, but because that's how it works. If siblings remain close (geographically if possible, but certainly emotionally) as adults, then it's likely that their offspring will also be close even if they're "only" cousins, not siblings to eachother.

Another non-nuclear thing we do is to extend the family to include new people, not just partners of family members, but whole families of our relatives' partners. Yiddish has a word, machetonim, which in its narrow sense means your child's partner's family, but in its broad sense means people who are connected to you via another relative, beyond direct in-laws. (I probably got this from Leo Rosten, who was brilliant at humorous but accurate definitions of Yiddish words, anyway I've heard that you can define machetonim as people who are related to you in ways that take longer to say than to use the term.) Obviously [personal profile] jack is my parents' son-in-law, everybody understands that. But his parents are my parents' machetonim, and we had some slight friction because my parents by default expect to have a relationship with their machetonim, whereas J's parents had no expectation that my parents (and probably my sibs and maybe even in-laws and cousins) would suddenly be related to them just because their son married me. I've been noticing the last couple of years that I'm no longer part of a family of six, which was my situation as a kid; it's more like a family of ten, including Granny and [personal profile] jack and my sibs' partners.

These machetonim connections don't exactly disappear when romantic relationships come to an end; my parents are still very interested in the lives of the people we have seriously dated in the past. Which suits me, because I strongly prefer to stay close friends with people after a relationship ends; if I like someone enough to date them in the first place, I certainly like them enough to want to be friends long-term. And that of course is another issue where there's a vocabulary gap. If I call someone my ex it connotates that I hate them and avoid them as much as possible; if I simply refer to my exes as my friends that misses out an important part of the story. Quite apart from the fact that "friend" means everything from some random person whose feed you occasionally glance at on Facebook to lifelong soul-mate. This is probably part of why I'm reluctant to date as it were "casually"; even a temporary relationship can feel like including the person in my family.

I've also been talking to various friends, particularly those from immigrant backgrounds, who are trying to reconcile their cultures' expectations of much closer adult relationships between parents and offspring, with the anglo culture expectation that being adult means you have only a minimal relationship with your parents, and if you are unusually close there's something wrong. It's really more the norm than the exception worldwide for adults to continue living in the family home, certainly until they get married but quite often as newlyweds too. Or else to deliberately choose to live nearby and continue to receive financial support, and practical support with childrearing with a closer involvement than just the odd Saturday night of babysitting. (I did a straw poll of a particular group of medical students, asking how many of them had grandparents directly involved in their lives growing up, beyond just occasional visits, and about half were substantially raised by grandparents as well as parents. FWIW.) Equally many cultures have a much stronger expectation that adult offspring will provide practical support for elderly, frail or sick family members. We sort of expect it in mainstream culture, but it doesn't really work very well with the nuclear family model; you end up with middle-aged daughters struggling to pay for and supervise the care provided to their parents from a long distance, with almost no societal or personal support, while people who don't have daughters willing and able to do this are pretty much abandoned.

Ideally, extended families like this could be more sustainable. If older relatives who have had time to accumulate material resources share them with younger people just starting out, you don't have this awful situation of people in their 20s and 30s who feel that being a real adult citizen means owning your own home but can in no way afford to live anywhere decent. (And you don't have to wait until your parents die to inherit their assets.) If whole families share caring responsibilities for young children as well as for elderly or disabled people, that's much more plausible than having a nuclear couple with one spouse earning the money to pay for everything and one spouse providing all the practical labour. Particularly if you plan for a typical nuclear family and expect to be caring for one or two healthy children for a set period of time, and for some reason that doesn't work out, so you end up with the labour-providing spouse having more on her plate than one person can reasonably manage.

I don't want to be romantic about this, though. It's very easy to fall into false nostalgia for a rose-tinted age when ageing parents were cared for in the family home and not institutionalized. For one thing, it's no good just deciding one wants do to that; at the moment, society is just not set up to make it possible, for a great number of reasons. For another, there are really good reasons why the model of leaving home in your late teens and building your own independent life is appealing. Although I'm somewhat closer to my parents and sibs than many people of my generation, I do in fact live on my own, rather distant from my genetic relatives, and I my life currently is focused around a primary, couple relationship. Even people who get on pretty well with their families of origin would be making a genuine sacrifice to gain the practical advantages of having multi-generation, extended families living in the same vicinity, much less the same household. Let alone people who actually have serious conflict with their relatives. Some of the Muslim girls in my interfaith group were talking about the fact that by default, they expect their parents to arrange marriages for them, and somebody asked, well, what if someone's parents don't really have their kids' best interests at heart? Over-insistence on family commitments traps people in untenable or abusive situations, that's the hard truth.

There's this famous essay by Doug Muder, based on George Lakoff: Red Family, Blue Family, in which Muder attempts to explain poor, rural American conservatives to geeky, urban American liberals, while also in some way asserting that liberal values are morally superior. Muder introduces the idea of families based on negotiated commitment, which is a very fine idea. I'm always a sucker for stories about chosen families, people who choose to be loyal to eachother even though they may not have ties based on blood or sex, and don't have the support of social structures to keep them together when things are hard. Morally, I completely back liberal, negotiated commitment ideas such as that people should be able to leave their parents and strike out on their own if they want to, and that people should be able to form relationships based on love rather than convenience and community expectations.

The problem is that I'm not sure how the commitment part of negotiated commitment really works in practice. It seems like, people who are shiny and socially valued will find partners, friends and communities to love and support them, even if they are misfits for whatever reason, and that's great. But I worry about the people who don't get on so well with others, who are a bit obnoxious or a bit antisocial, or are basically decent people but just plain hard work, or are sufficiently eccentric that people like them are rare and they maybe don't have the resources to move to the big city and find their people. The solution in Red Family, Blue Family is the fairly glib suggestion that we "just" have to have a good social safety net, so that people who don't manage to build intentional communities won't end up starving and homeless and without medical care. Being a bit more right-leaning than Muder's core audience, I'm not desperately enthusiastic about handing over family and community collective responsibilities to the state. Apart from anything else, people have emotional needs as well as practical ones. But basically I don't trust the government to actually look after people who need it.

I've also been reading a couple of advice columns, sort of group therapy for geeks style, Captain Awkward and Making Light's Dysfunctional Families thread. And both the Awkward Army and the Fluorospherians are very very good at advising people to get the hell out of bad relationships, whether that's relationships with parents or with romantic partners or even friendships or employment situations. This is obviously an excellent thing in the case of abuse; there are far too many pressures out there for people to continue to endure abuse because they feel they have an obligation to maintain a relationship with someone who is hurting them. But equally obviously it's hard to judge what constitutes "bad enough" that the only possible option is to completely cut off contact. It feels like there's a growing community of people, particularly the sort of geeky and/or queer crowd I hang out with, who are really in rebellion against the idea that you have to stick with your family no matter what, because their birth families fundamentally don't get who they are. That rebellion is really necessary, it's made a whole lot of people happier over the past couple of generations. The problem is that if you carry that attitude of, if people aren't bringing value to your life then remove them from it, over into your chosen family, then it's not really a family. It's a bunch of people who have fun together, but don't have any reason to continue to be part of eachother's lives any time they're not having a good time.

That might be ok for young, relatively well-off, able-bodied people, people who can break off a connection that isn't working for them and find support and companionship somewhere else instead. I don't know how to reconcile this (decidedly appealing!) idea that you should only sustain relationships with people who make you happier on an ongoing basis with the things that I sort of expect from families. One of the things that makes a family, in my understanding, is that it carries family members who during a given period need more from the family than they can contribute. That might be a practical imbalance, and it might be emotional. I do think there's a diversity of ways that families can achieve that, but a group that isn't even trying to do that doesn't quite look like a family.

Like I said, somewhat rambly and not very coherent thoughts. This probably ought to've been several posts, really, but let's see what people think.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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