Sunday, August 29, 2010

Connected, but not in Obvious Ways

I was 22 when I joined the Peace Corps and went to live in a little town in a different country. When I first went, I was the only volunteer in the town.

It seemed "normal" to me, going off to live way apart from my family and all.

But to the people I interacted with mostly, it seemed sort of crazy. They'd wonder how I could leave my family, how I could live alone, and so forth.

I'd grown up mostly having my own room, in a culture that valued "independence" and expected kids to do their own thing as yound adults, even if that meant moving to a different continent.

Many of the people I interacted with had grown up sharing a room with multiple family members, in cultures that valued family ties. They told me they just felt uncomfortable sleeping alone at night. It was normal to share rooms.

Of course, the way I'd been raised seemed normal, natural even. Kids were supposed to be independent; it was healthy. It's also really handy for making a work force that will move to jobs and think of themselves as independent contractors, of course. It's almost a precondition of the industrial revolution that you have to have lots of workers who think living apart from their families and moving somewhere else makes sense. (There was a long period in London during which the population of London didn't reproduce itself but depended on immigrants from elsewhere in England to sustain it.)

I had a father who was a really good 1960's USian dad. He was kind and caring, and worked hard at his job to support the family. He wasn't around during the days, but we ate dinner together pretty much every evening when he came home. He did his own thing (tennis) on Saturday and Sunday (after church) mornings. My mother was also a good 1960's USian mom. She stayed home with the kids, was involved in school volunteering, and was our primary disciplinarian. She encouraged us to do our studying and learn independence. It was all very middle class and WASPy.

In comparison, my sibling is also a good dad, but with some real differences. He's arranged at various times to work from home part of the day so that he'd be around his kids, or to go to work at 5am so that he'd be home early enough to be with his kids after school. He's changed more diapers in a week than my dad did during his fatherhood. (My dad was the eldest of six; he'd changed plenty of his siblings' diapers.) He's just way more involved in his kids' stuff, shares disciplining more with my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law has been a stay at home mom, like my own mom, but has gone back to school and shared household chores and such with my brother more.

For my dad, kids were mostly what my mom wanted, and he was happy to be a good dad. For my brother, kids were more a shared desire, and he wants to be more involved.

Now, in both cases, these are middle class, WASPy families. But I think there's a real difference in the ways my generation is parenting. At its extreme, we hear lots of complaints about helicopter parenting. But I think we're also seeing a reduced emphasis on being independent for the sake of independence. My students seem to think of their parents as friends as well as parents, and I don't think most kids in my generation did.


I got a call yesterday on my cell phone from a number I didn't recognize (and neither did the phone). But the area code was one of the area codes from where I grew up. So I was a little worried. It could be one of my relatives calling, but not one my phone recognizes. Or it could be a hospital calling to tell me that my Mom's had a stroke or something.

There was no message, so I called back, and I got the voice mail of daughter of my Mom's friend, someone I grew up knowing, but haven't talked to in years. It turned out that she was tryingt to get my Mom's cell phone number, and there wasn't an emergency or anything.

But, you know, it's likely that someday I'll get a call from a number in that area code and it will be an emergency, or someone calling to tell me that my Mom has died. That's how I found out my Dad had died; an EMT from the next suburb over called, and then put my Mom on the line after he'd told me.

That's the other side of the independence we've historically valued: my sibling and I are 2000 miles from "home"; we're both reasonably successful in terms our culture cares about. But we're also distant from family in ways that are difficult sometimes.

On the one hand, I really like living alone, being independent, doing my own thing. On the other hand, there's something to be said for being close to family and such, isn't there?

I wonder how this next generation is going to find things; yes, there's still a lot of emphasis in our culture on independence. And this coming generation has been criticized for being self-centered and such. But self-centeredness is nothing new in USian culture, and hasn't served us well. And independence for the sake of independence doesn't always serve us well, either.

Maybe the students coming up, the ones whose fathers have been more involved in their lives (even if that's a class issue), will figure things out a bit better, will manage better balance?


  1. What I hope for, and I admit it may only be tangentially related to your post, would also be the result of a greater involvement of fathers in the child-rearing process: a world where young men have role models that treat women with equality, aren't raised to be stoic, isolated ("manly") men, and learn a different rubrick for measuring success than the money-and-power one so many have been raised with in the past. We can only hope.

  2. What is interesting to me is the dynamic between geographical distance and emotional closeness. Even when I lived 2500 miles from my nearest sib, all of us were emotionally close. But I frequently meet people who can't imagine a close family that doesn't have Sunday dinner together every week.

  3. I'm about 2100 miles away from my hometown. Last year, when my dad died, all I knew was that he'd collapsed and that he was taken to the hospital. I waited by the phone for hours for news. No one ever called me. I called the hospital, and they transferred me around until finally I got a hold of my cousin, who told me he was dead. I was so shocked. And even worse was that no one even thought to call me -- he'd been dead for over an hour. It was awful. That experience made me sort of want to be closer to the fam for when my mom gets older, but at the same time, I also know that I get along with my family better when I'm not in their sphere of influence. Weird, eh? We just have very different values.

    Anyway. My hubby is also a much more involved dad than his dad was. He changes diapers, cleans, cooks, gives baths, reads stories, etc. He's also an emotional guy - cries and all. No macho men here. My two sons are lucky, I think, to have a male role model who doesn't buy into the manly man BS. He also has nothing but respect for me and treats me like a 100% equal, which is probably even more important to model for young boys.

  4. This is such a true post. Nowhere I've been has such distant families as the US. For better or for worse.