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Multiple Family Values

The March 2020 The Atlantic features an article, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” by David Brooks, NY Times columnist and frequent TV commentator. Brooks, born in Canada in 1961, often promotes 1950’s family values, which he didn’t experience, and judges 1960’s values as hyper-individualistic and one large cause of today’s problems. In the 1960’s, I was young, but older than Brooks who was not yet 10. And, while I read a lot, I still interpreted the world through the filters of Roman Catholic teachings and whatever adult wielded the most power at that moment.

The 1960’s brought The Beatles, polarization over the Vietnam War, and some judgement of suburban values and social alienation. In 1966, the Monkees performed Pleasant Valley Sunday, by Gerry Goffin and Carol King, and the Beatles released Eleanor Rigby. By the late 1960’s, I remember much collectivized consciousness raising and challenge to authority. I was around it but not myself a part of it.

Brooks NY Times columns often credit strong male influence where family stability exists without acknowledging that stable two parent nuclear families have mothers around. Many right leaning pundits rarely mention that, for millennia, within traditional cultures and family systems, women and children were chattel, completely dependent on the good will of the man of the house. Whomever we believe to be the most important authority in the family, the primary family unit always starts with the physical, neurochemical mother/child connection. I hope that increasing awareness, some of it intuitive, about how consciousness develops will lead to greater appreciation of this reality.

Right now, socioeconomic realities, including the loss of many American industrial jobs, and, perhaps, opioid addiction are shaking the underpinnings of the traditional American nuclear family, a family structure that is not all that traditional. Many nuclear families started when Europe’s feudal economy gave way to the industrial revolution. The smoke belching factories that promised prosperity pulled extended families off familiar land to live in disconnected arrangements in unfamiliar towns and cities. Single families and many individual single adults (and children) immigrated here for a better life. And, while US single family home ownership rose with post WWII prosperity and the GI bill, the nuclear family didn’t start there; the label started there. Both nuclear and extended families occupied America’s first tenements and single- family houses.

I am of mostly Irish descent and know many Irish immigrated here during the potato famine, a tragedy involving more than a crop failure. English politicians rigged the system so many Irish could not own land. Suddenly without addresses, many Irish were ineligible for any leftovers local officials could dispense after politicians shipped most Irish crops to England. Many Irish men emigrated here and found work digging the Erie Canal. It was along the Erie Canal that a big alternative family system, polygamy, formed around Joseph Smith. Smith’s Mormons grew in numbers, continuing west after a mob killed Smith in Illinois and settled in Utah, where, ultimately, in exchange for US statehood, Utah’s crystallizing Mormon hierarchy agreed to outlaw the very family structure most associated with Mormonism.

Meanwhile, seemingly everywhere, zoning laws and deed covenants determined who could live and where as a mutually supportive family under one roof. Brooks’ Atlantic article discusses family function and domicile form. TLC’s reality TV show “Sister Wives” is all about patriarchy and houses. -Spoilers follow.

So far, the 2020 season of “Sister Wives” finds polygamous patriarch Kody Brown “jaded,” “cynical” and “embittered” when, following his overwhelming campaign to convince his four wives to combine their four separate households under one roof, the wives still oppose him. Without consulting his wives, Kody had an architect design a four-unit single family, single entrance, dwelling with a large common family area and separate quarters for Kody, Kody’s “castle.” Kody presents his “dream” design to his wives as a Christmas surprise.

Surprise!  Game on.

As of February 24, Kody is questioning plural marriage/polygamy altogether while at the same time considering forcing his will on his family, as he has already done on TV, in uprooting them from their last four houses in his search for a place to be family. At a group dinner, Kody’s wives wear tee shirts showing the message, “home is where the wives are.” The polygamist Browns don’t seem to have the sort of financial burdens experienced by most working families. Much of their family life revolves around buying and selling large houses. As for the family itself, Kody and his four wives seem like nuclear family serial monogamists who play well together in front of the camera on holidays. Lots of divorced and remarried adults with blended families do the same.

(The thought just occurred to me: families come in all shapes and sizes. I probably read it on a bumper stick or something.)

I believe all families are extended families whether they’re multi-generational living in one house or living in multiple houses in different states tele-communicating. I believe
optimal performance in any system fluctuates constantly when context changes. Rigidity is not stability. And, it’s incorrect to consistently blame individuals and individual families for problems that might often start in the political, cultural and economic systems encompassing those families. Wide pendulum swings in public opinion often function as
wrecking balls.

Long live love.

Happy Spring!

Debra Merryweather