We parents today (particularly in Western “civilized” societies) have it harder than perhaps any other time in history and any other culture known. By some stroke of cosmic misfortune, our historical “good” fortune has condemned our child-raising to a level of toil previously unimaginable. In fact, I would hazard to guess that if parenting had been so much work for our predecessors, our species would never have become so prolific. So what is it exactly I am so unabashedly whining about? Well, it’s the ridiculously unsustainable entity known commonly (if grotesquely) as the nuclear family.
It’s an oxymoron of the highest caste. It’s a travesty for parents, kids, and the removed extended families alike. And for most of us it is a grim matter of fact, little considered, and even less addressed. There is really no such thing as a nuclear family, and for that matter, even the so called “extended family” is a trick of the language of modernity. In terms of the human species — until the last, hyper-mobile, wave of industrialization, there has only ever been “extended families”. And for them, it was just “family”. The idea that there is a micro-unit of family with the option to occasionally access familial extensions is basically brand new, and already blatantly showing itself as untenable.
So, if you’re still wondering what the heck I’m talking about here — I’m talking about the greatest loss in the history of our species: the built-in village of what we now call “the extended family”. Throughout all of our evolution, and up until the late 19th century, the majority of families all over the planet have generally remained localized and/or migrated en masse. That is, families stayed together for however many generations could survive long enough to share the same physical space. When there was need for information about babies, you asked your grandmother, or aunt; or better still, you watched (and later helped) as your siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews were born and raised right before your eyes. And when it came time for you to give birth, you had a wealth of your own, hands-on information, and an even greater wealth of expertise at your disposal in the form of your seasoned elders. You had built-in postpartum assistance and guidance, built-in infant care-givers, built-in house-keeping helpers, built-in respite-providers, built-in teachers. And even more important, your children had a whole ready-at-hand network of other people who loved them unconditionally.
Let that sink in for a moment. Can you imagine what it would mean to your child’s self-image to have seven other adults in the daily or weekly mix who think and act as if your child is worthy of love just for being alive — just for being part of the family? And further, can you (do you even dare!) imagine what it would be like if you had another set of arms, or eyes, or legs to help you with the multitude of daily child-care tasks, and/or the innumerable daily home-making projects. Can you imagine the built-in play network? Or the readily available emotional support that so many of us are lacking? I don’t know about you, but it sounds ideal to me!
Now, I know some of you are thinking, “Are you kidding, I don’t want my family anywhere near my kids!” And I agree that there is something to be said for being able to raise our kids the way we think is best, and with the latest, greatest information available on the planet as to how to do so. However, when we talk to Natalie’s 80-something grandmother about elimination communication, or co-sleeping, or holding our babies all the time, or almost anything we think of as related to attachment (or connection) parenting, she always says, “Shoot… well, yeah — that’s exactly what my mom used to do with us…”. And I wonder how many of the problematic things our parents and parents’ parents did raising their kids could have been avoided had they had their familial ties close at hand (and therefore didn’t need to rely on Dr. Spock, and the like to [mis]guide them!)? Which is to say, that if you think your parents blew it, it’s most likely because they were marooned on their own island of parenting. They, like us, were cut-off from the natural wisdom of the ages, and somewhat forced to give themselves over to the pop-psychology gurus of the day and the parenting mythology being promulgated by such.
So then, if things are the way they are, then why not just accept that families are “nuclear” and get on with making them work? Great idea — only they don’t work. We aren’t designed that way. Our biology does not support this model, otherwise we’d have more appendages, or actually grow eyes in the backs of our heads, or our kids would grow up faster, and be autonomous sooner. And rather than the least happy generation(s) in history, we’d be counted among the happiest, most well-adjusted, peaceful, compassionate peoples the world has even known. Right?
If the nuclear family were tenable, none of us would be here right now writing or reading a parenting blog! If the nuclear family were tenable, we wouldn’t need to spend half a pay check every week on daycare. We wouldn’t need to secure a sitter in order to have a couple hours alone with our partners. We wouldn’t need to spend months educating ourselves on the simple biological act of giving birth. We wouldn’t need to get lactation consultation, or buy a mountain of new baby gear, or go to therapy, or take anti-depressants to cope with parenting stress, or send our kids to therapy, or give them Ritalin to cope with the latest acronyms labeling them. We wouldn’t need parenting support groups. And we wouldn’t need parenting consultants either! If the nuclear family was a sustainable model, we would have figured that out and adopted it millennia ago, instead of spending 99.999% of our history living and thriving to teeming populations in familial clans.
SO what do we do? What can we possibly do to recreate what we lost? Well, I say get we “Hilary Clinton” with it, and build a village in which to raise our children. If that is how we are biologically designed, and what our kids need most to grow and thrive, then let’s make our own “extended families”. If that’s where the support is, and where the shared information is, and where the built-in play/peer group is, and where the child-care help is, and where the home-making assistance is, then by all means, let’s create it for ourselves and enjoy the bounty! If our species was made to raise our children within a village, then why not give that to them, and perhaps more importantly, as their primary care-givers, why not give it to ourselves? We are worth at least that, and our children are too.
So what does it look like? Anything you want. (Isn’t that nice!) That’s the huge benefit of this kind of village-building. It can take any shape that works for you, your family, and the other people you include. It might mean you allow your own “extended” family to play a larger role in your kids’ lives. It might mean you get brave and seek out other like-minded parents with whom to connect and share. It might mean you get even braver and host play groups at your house. It might mean you trade date nights with your neighbors, and watch their kids for a evening in exchange for the same in return. It might mean trading day care for each other’s work days. It might even mean you do exactly what you are doing right now, as well. Whatever ways and means you can invent for this kind of “family-extending” is totally fair game, and can be chosen to align perfectly with all of your other parenting choices (unlike the traditional “extended” family!).
You can have it all. You just have to be willing to build it. And speaking as one who has worked together with other lovely humans to create and maintain our own family village, I can tell you, the rewards are overwhelmingly delightful, and the dividends return the investment almost instantaneously.
So what are you waiting for? Get out of here, and get busy! You and your children deserve it.
And be well.