Real Talk on Real Families

Friday, January 1, 2016 - 7:39am
Photo by Brandon King
The New Better Off

Real Talk on Real Families

Chances are that you’ve had an encounter with what might be called “family” in the last week, and, if not, then in the last couple of months — the season of mistletoe, casseroles, drunken declarations of brotherly love, toys strangled against cardboard by plastic twine, and, too often, unsolicited and underhanded commentary that hit you right where it hurts. It can be beautiful. It can also be really, really hard.

Part of our angst over family gatherings can be chalked up to the general dysfunction inherent in any group of people that attempts to do all of those most Herculean of human pursuits together — to birth, to love, to grow, to heal, to die, to lose. Is it any wonder that our families are conflicted? They are the “places” where we do all of the hard, meaningful stuff in life. This kind of suffering, I’ve come to believe, is not to be avoided.

Sure, people can treat one another better. They can go to therapy. (Please everyone, go to therapy!) They can try to respond differently to the same old stimuli (Mom’s criticism, Dad’s hubris, etc.) and carve new pathways in their brains. But the process can be like shoveling snow with a toothpick.

I’ve tried it so often myself: "Okay, this time, when money comes up, I’m not going to devolve into an intolerable pseudo-Mother Theresa figure." And then, in a matter of nanoseconds, I’m lecturing everyone as if I spend my days dressing wounds in an orphanage. My version: Pavlovian righteousness. Yours could be any number of totally repetitive, totally unproductive responses that fit right into the long evolving family matrix.

We are all lead characters in our family dramas and we know just how to play the part, no understudy required.

Part of our angst over our families, I believe, falls in a different category. This one produces unnecessary suffering. This one is less about the actual drama that your particular family is staging and more about your insecurity, about what you mistakenly perceive as the truly unique and horrible version that only your family is depraved, disconnected, unconscious enough to create. You may have a boatload of angst over something even more basic… whether your family even constitutes a family in the first place.

Here’s the punch line to the whole thing: everyone’s family is screwed up and there is no typical family. If your family is you and your bald uncle with one extremely long ear hair, then that counts, just as much as if your family is three sisters, three brothers, and two smiling parents. You might even be the more contented one if you just have that one uncle. Who knows?

This isn’t just me blathering. The statistics back it up. Fewer than half (46%) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. Thirty-seven percent of queer and transgender Americans have a child at some point. Forty-four percent of people ages 18-29 have a step-sibling. Fifteen percent of all new marriages are interracial these days.

And yet we still live in a world that culturally operates as if everyone emerges from two heterosexual, long-married parents of the same ethnic and religious background, lives in the same two-story home with a white picket fence with those parents and 1.5 siblings for 18 years, and everyone else is a little off. In fact, everyone else is everyone else because the heterosexual, “intact,” nuclear family is now an anomaly. Especially one, Facebook feeds be damned, that dresses in matching family holiday pajamas. (This is what the Family Story initiative calls “nuclear family privilege.”)

This is all to say I can’t relieve you of the first kind of suffering: the sparks that fly and the burns that ensue when real humans try to do hard things, namely be in lifelong relationship with one another. I can recommend letting go of that second kind of suffering: the pain you might feel because your family seems uniquely dysfunctional or perhaps not even worthy of the exalted title of family.

Your family is whichever motley crew of dysfunctional humans you love so damn much you would do anything for, including being driven crazy by them. Your family is your blood, or maybe not. Your family is the people that know you at your ugliest and least evolved. Your family is oxtail soup or rice congee or collard greens. Your family is your breaking point and your healing refuge. Your family is your best chance to be known.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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4Reflections

Reflections

Our family experiences are a complementary blend of natural and unnatural components. The natural component is the middle third of the ideal reaction to the void, "...reaching out to others..." which we can do. The unnatural component is trying to fill the void with family which can't be done. To the extent we try to fill the void in any way we self-destruct and contribute to the destruction of others. From the evidence we can confidently conclude the unnatural component dominates the experiences of our human family.

Can we see conflict as opportunity for personnel growth?

(A Quaker Query/ Question)

Straight from the mouth of God into my ears.
I've sent this onto my family. Our times together are always a combustible mixture. Lately the threat has been to stop getting together - to this I say "what? and miss out on the best of times and the worst of times?"

I agree with these observations but they are not original. This has been part of our family discussions for the past 25 years. Perhaps they need to be read in public to remind us that it is too easy to become mired in Hollywood portrayals of "normal" families. However, I take deep offense to use of the term "queer." It will not advance an understanding of each other to use perjorative terms. I am surprised that ON BEING would post this column without a reaction to the term.