When my grandmother and grandfather got married after he returned from fighting in World War II, they lived in an apartment above the garage of my grandmother’s parents’ house until my mother was two years old, when they bought the little home they lived in for the rest of their lives. After they moved, they had dinner at one or the other set of grandparents’ homes every Sunday, but interestingly, my grandfather only went to dinner at his own parents’ house and stayed home on the Sundays when the family gathered at my grandmother’s parents’ house. Obviously there must have been some kind of residual tension between my grandfather and great-grandparents after years of living in close contact with them.
We’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of the word “family” as meaning a husband, a wife, and several children, but this is a very narrow view of what family means and certainly isn’t what’s meant by the term “patriarchy”. A patriarchy has generally been a kin-based clan that is headed up by a senior male relative, with each man under him taking on successively smaller leadership roles. For example:
In Roman times, all citizens were divided by gens (clan) and familia (sept), determined on a purely patrilineal basis, in the same way as the modern inheritance of surnames…[t]he gens was the larger unit, and was divided into several familiae…
The idea of the nuclear family being an autonomous unit not embedded in a wider kin network seems to be fairly recent.
On Christmas Eve I sat by the tree with my mother-in-law after the children were in bed and we had finished playing Santa Claus and putting the gifts under the tree and in the stockings, and we got to talking about her childhood in Detroit from 1935 when she was born up until she got married around age 22. Detroit was still considered the Paris of the west at that time and was not the “diversified” urban wasteland of crime and pawn shops that it is now, and she lived in a two-flat house owned by her grandparents. She lived in the upstairs flat with her mother, father, and brother, and her father’s parents lived in the downstairs flat.
I said, “Oh, that must have been really nice.”
She paused, “Well, yes.” But something in her response made it clear that there was more to the story. It turns out that her mother didn’t get on well with her in-laws. They tended to be judgmental and gossipy and it hurt her mother’s feelings terribly and caused tension in her marriage. Eventually when the children were teenagers there was a particular incident in which my mother-in-law’s grandfather engaged in some particularly unkind gossip and her mother had had enough. I won’t share all the details, but the end result was that my mother-in-law’s parents moved out of the two-flat house and bought their own home in Dearborn, which is about a 20 minute drive from Detroit. But my mother-in-law said her father was very angry about moving away from his parents. I can’t feel too sorry for him, though; he ought to have stood up to his parents at some point and insisted they treat his wife and children with more kindness.
I’ve been pondering a lot lately how much more connected and fulfilled I feel around extended family but also trying to understand how this can be so despite the various tensions and squabbles that have erupted over the years. There were times when I was at odds with either my mother, my mother-in-law, or both. It seems that we want our extended families but they also drive us crazy, as we no doubt drive them crazy. In the past, for economic reasons people had no choice but to stay embedded in their extended families, but as we became more prosperous right around the 1950s, people decided the petty bickering, power plays, and factioning that occurs were just too much hassle and the gens broke apart into individual familiae.
And it hasn’t stopped there. After the extended family broke into individual nuclear families, the 1970s no-fault divorce revolution happened. And then in the 1990s the single (never married) mother revolution really got going. The nuclear family is now breaking apart into an even smaller unit of just a woman and sometimes her children if she has any, but increasingly, people are remaining both unmarried and childless.
Are we happier this way? Maybe in the short-term we are, but I am not convinced we are in the long run. The decline in the size of our family units has nicely mirrored the decline in our mental health:
Studies show that rates of depression for Americans have risen dramatically in the past 50 years. Research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that major depression rates for American adults increased from 3.33 percent to 7.06 percent from 1991 through 2002.
It’s a real paradox here in this fallen shadow world; we want to be totally free and independent but the freer and more independent we become, the unhappier we are. It’s tempting to blame feminism, but I think this is more a symptom of the larger problem of not being able to submit ourselves to the messy and sometimes even unpleasant or emotionally painful larger family unit. We don’t want to compromise any of our precious freedom, not realizing that with absolute freedom comes absolute isolation.
We want both to rebel and simultaneously to be constrained, so we end up acting out a game of how-low-can-you-go; how small can the family unit get before we are all just a bunch of lonely, irritable individuals inhabiting our own separate little boxes, unable to tolerate the messy, painful, satisfying love of our gens and familia?