Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Form and Function of the Family

Here's something I'm thinking over.

In studying poverty and crime in America, we frequently talk about disintegrating family structure. Joe the Cop over at Arresting Tales recently wrote about this. Momma Fargo has it on the sidebar of her blog: the family doesn't spend time together, and children are unsupervised. It crops up repeatedly in political discourse about what's broken in society.

Frequently we mean a nuclear family: one dad, one mom, both involved in an economic unit (a household) and engaged in responsible child-rearing. Basically, a family is supposed to raise responsible descendants, provide present-day stability, and accumulate capital, i.e., property and money that can be used to further family goals and investment and commerce. Over the years, we have added that it should foster attachment to family and country, and then finally to compassion for society at large. 

Much of the basis for our understanding of psychology (and other social sciences) comes from the axiom that the single-family household is normal. For instance, Freud posits that we learn how to interact in the world from our same-sex parent. We get our ambition from our opposite-sex parent. What if the father isn't there?  How does a young woman gain or lose ambition thereby? How does a young man learn how to act?

But what if our solutions are based upon one family model that doesn't cover every economic contingency? Or, perhaps, is an unworkable premise at the present time?

Is the nuclear family the axiomatic model?
I want to say that the nuclear family describes a portion (half?) of the historical record, even in Europe and the United States. Most families in history are extended families--multi-generational.  Some of them were nomadic, and some settled. Not all of them were related by blood--some households were more like a wolf pack, with alpha members having reproductive rights and servants or retainers with none. There are years of history where men went to Crusades or World Wars, or all the adults died of plague. Families are broken by more than one circumstance. They change in shape according to economic, reproductive, and security necessities. 

These necessities are rarely charming, or cruelty-free, or actualize individual choices. They aggregate money, defense and power, and are a fight against group mortality. 

The nuclear family as we understand it originates as a wrench from the multi-generational extended family. It represents a huge social displacement. Somebody cast off from the old country (immigration). They moved from settled lands further West (migration).  They were turned out as youngsters and forced to seek their fortune elsewhere (apprenticeship). Or, they ran from their responsibilities to their starving parents or lackluster cousins and started over, never to return. 

Frequently, the multi-generational family offers the most support in poverty. It is also the least mobile in responding to change.  It creates instant support for some things, such as child supervision or a barn-raising. It does not respond to economic innovation or gain rapid money aggregation. Somebody is always getting old, sick, or in trouble. A nephew always needs a ride or a money order. Individual success is always diluted by the constant need of the group.

Industrial society requires a mobile population. This is better accomplished by a smaller nuclear family. An agrarian society under constant pressure from nature and with low technology is better served by an extended family. We have today a settled society doing lower-income service work with unreliable schedules. The family formed under these conditions in neighborhoods is the extended family, mostly female. There is always someone with whom you can drop off the kids. Nuclear families in the meantime, keep looking for day care options, finding either none, or professional playrooms, or importing nannies or au pairs, or--reaching out to the extended family yet again.

Toward Restoring Family Function
Mostly I'd like to point out that if we don't have a nuclear family with one father, one mother, and the appropriate number of children, we have to work with the family structures we have. We may have to start with a different goal that is equally family-oriented. That would be, to enable extended families to aggregate capital and contribute stability. And finally, to raise children who would understand how to perpetuate social values with a functional family, in whatever form it seems to take. Maybe we need to quit wishing and see the strengths of the families that have formed in response to the changing economic realities. Or maybe we just need to intervene after all. 

[Below the jump: a haphazard history, cherry-picked from research I already did for other reasons. Just to give examples of family structures that served at the time. It rambles, and not everyone needs it to understand what I mean above. In short, my discussion is set up: it's just background for the same.]

Medieval History
In the Middle Ages, under Norman rule, the elaborate courtly love scenarios mask a grim reality: few men were allowed to get married. Few had property, which was the means of income. If this estate wasn't to be broken up, then many knights had to stay unmarried. While there was no lack of male influence, there was no nuclear family either. Instead, one man had legitimate bed-rights and the rest were tossing scullery maids and ladies-in-waiting on an unofficial basis.

A baron with a small holding and six sons had to send five of them to the clergy, or get them fostered out to richer lords as pages--yet a different kind of extended family. Unless these sons won renown and property, they never married. Do we think they never had children?

Peasants married (or, not.). Frequently they had their own family cot. Just as frequently, they lived in loose association, an extended family through marriage or blood, in associated cabins or a long-house arrangement. The long house arrangement was also used by the Saxons, the Scandinavians, and expanded for feudal/serf society.

References: Marriage & Family in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies; William Marshal: The Flower of History by Georges Duby; et cetera.

Manorial History
In later centuries, the Medieval models changed somewhat: both agrarian and servant labor was more mobile. Still, the butler could not marry the housekeeper without prior permission from his employer. Nobody wanted a pregnant housekeeper, because it interfered with housekeeping. Therefore, the scullery maids's position did not change much. Female servants were sent packing at the first sign of pregnancy. No references were given, thus cutting those women off from legitimate economic avenues. Prostitution has almost immediately diminishing economic returns. So there were a lot of orphans in European cities, actual and de facto. A skilled worker such as a cook or first ladies' maid might have accumulated capital and a skill that enabled her to leave her child elsewhere and return to the work force.

Land-owning families, and some rich proprietors were nuclear families. They also tried to extend that network with connections forged by marriage for property and power alliances: marriage for advantage in the extended family, rather than affection. 

Servants held a higher rank than a tradesman (a collier, for instance, but maybe not a jeweler.). Yet there are mansions with a history of making their servants use hidden staircases, never to be seen. Other manors where servants were supposed to turn their faces to the wall in the presence of their lord. They were part of a household, but their place was limited. They were paid in room and board, livery, and a quarterly wage, very small, and their retirement might or might not be forced. It might or might not be accompanied by a monetary gift.

Those who farmed manorial land had a nuclear family, again extended by close proximity to other nearby family members, and a de facto or customary inheritance of rented farms and jobs in the local village. It depends on what kind of noble landlord, his bailiff, and how much he was willing to re-invest that tells you whether they had quality of life. Over time, farming made less money with more expenses than herding enterprises. Rural re-investment stalled or died for the tenant farm after industrialization. And this broke up many extended families.

References: Life in a Noble Household, 1641-1700 by Gladys Scott Thomson; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray; et cetera.

While industrialization served to privilege nuclear families, it also disrupted them. Women worked cheaper than men; children worked cheaper than women; and so to the factories the children went. This is not the nuclear family we generally invoke. Without reformist labor laws, the male has traditionally earned the higher wage--when he can find a job. 

The American West.
When homesteaders married on the frontier, and the wife died, it was not unusual for a man to marry his first wife's sister. Their background was known, their home training the same, their location known. Likewise, homesteading widows remarried if they could, just to keep things going. Or, if she had no extended family, she frequently was displaced to a town in order to support her children by legitimate or unsavory means.

References: Interwoven by Frances Mayhugh Holden; et cetera.

In some ways, slavery combines many of the factors above. It resembles the manorial or Medieval system for servitude, except there was even less mobility, and less aggregation (say, zero) of capital.  The conditions of slavery combine the features of rural extended families but also broke those extended relationships through brutality and by selective relocation--either during the expansion of property, 'hiring out' or subcontracting slave labor, or through sale of family members to another owner. In this situation, you have heartbreak. As in many family situations listed above, family then adjusts to whoever's still around. 

Only in slavery and in families with capital or land to inherit does an expectant woman have greater value while pregnant. Once the child is weaned, then the child became another potentially valuable factor in alliances, wage-earning, or as a worker, slave, or vassal.

Frances Kemble of the London acting family left the stage to marry a plantation holder. She kept a diary that detailed her observations and horrified feelings about slavery and how it was conducted. The slaves she met constantly appealed to her for mercy, extra food, clothing, or the like. In such conditions, eating two meals of corn gruel a day to do field work in the summer, it would perhaps be hard to feel attachment to anyone. Your best survival attachment was to your enemy, or to the least resolute of your enemy.

Kemble writes also that individual slaves were sometimes singled out as favorites. In such cases, the requests for relief could take on a more trickster-type mode, based upon making the owner laugh and give in rather than outright pleading. This kind of trickster mythology, seen in the myths/legends of B'rer Rabbit (but not the Disney version), was a very effective pressure. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls this kind of interchange 'signifying'.  It was a teachable skill and used throughout the single- or extended- black family in the Jim Crow South and beyond. I saw my husband scammed by it once. And Eudora Welty, in "The Worn Path" gives incredible examples of how it works. If you don't read carefully, you never see it. This contains a whole other subject, but it does show that generational wisdom did get passed down through the black family under very trying conditions.

The main differences I see in slavery is that it did not teach the accumulation of capital at the same time that it produced no relief from strong, isolating anxiety. The most important alliances to maintain were to your enemy. There is also a temporal distortion of up to six hundred years in that extended, group family structure from the ones most nearly the same in European history.

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Ann Kemble (Butler); other slave accounts; The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; et cetera.


mrs. fuzz said...

This post is right up my alley! I really enjoyed reading it. My degree is in Marriage, Family, and Human Development and I spend a great deal of time thinking similar things over in my mind. Anyways, very interesting.

Bob G. said...

I do agree with your observations and assessments.
One other thing that I think needs addition to this societal "mix" is the aspect of ENTERTAINMENT.

I know it sounds too easy a solution with which to assign any "blame" (per se), and it might even appear to be a bit off-key when speaking about poverty and crime.

But I firmly believe that entertainment is used as a a divisive parameter that serves to "deflect attention" from much of what we experience (or rather should be experiencing) in life.

It's the whole "feeling good" thing, instead of tackling problems head-on, as our ancestors did.

If we're entertained to some degree, we don't have time to think on things that need our (immediate) attention.
And in an age of ADHD out the wazoo, it's an easy substitute for parenting...or social interaction, or even respect and civility.

Instant communication - instant entertainment - instant gratification.
That hearkens back in infancy when we CRIED in order to have our desires met.

As we grew up, we learned that crying wasn't going to get us everything...we had to apply OURSELVES instead.

The sheer dynamics of such a debate are ones that could well have us discussing this for decades.

Excellent stuff you have here.
Very well thought out.

Ann T. said...

Dear Mrs. Fuzz,
Well, I hope I got this right, then!

I keep thinking that we have to take the wish out, even though our wishes are strong.

Thanks for stopping in! You're always welcome, and feel free to add family insights. I will have another post on this, I think this week but maybe next.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
That is an absolutely brilliant addition--that the television is serving the function of 'extended family' in many cases.

Great call.

Thanks for popping in!
Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
More excellent work! You make me think, and this is not a bad thing.

Back in Genesis, God is quoted as saying, "It is not good for the man to be alone," (2:18) I think we can extend this "design flaw" and apply it in a more global way--it is not good for isolation to be a way of life. It appears that it is not good for people to be alone. In general, people need people, for interaction, for help, to help, etc. Our next "design point" is that two are required to make more of us, and the babies need nurture. This seems best done in the families you so well described, either nuclear or multigenerational.

All this is to say that we need to understand that, with the exception of a few very exceptional individuals, we really do need each other. It makes sense to have the people who got together and created the new life to be a part of this nurturing, and multigenerations backing them up but,ideally, not holding them back. Today, first we lost the multigenerations, and now, we are rapidly losing the presence of one (usually the male) of the nuclear pair. This is not a good thing, and I think people recognize the isolation and lack of socialization that has taken place. Bob's ENTERTAINMENT fits in here, because we start looking for other ways to fill that social need we're made with.

All that is to say that we need to be open to all ways to work this issue. Strengthen the nuclear unit. Encourage multigeneration and non-DNA relationships, especially if the nuclear unit is not intact. Look to the community-at-large for more places to bond and socialize.

Hebrews 10:25:"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—" It seems as if God wants us to be attached to one another, doesn't He?

The Observer, epically.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Did Blogger eat your reply to my epical, biblical comment? I always look forward to your well thought out replies to comments--as well as the comments you leave on my and others blogs. :-)

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
i don't know what's going on with Blogger, but they didn't eat that one--I just got distracted by the lost comments, the photos that wouldn't upload, the multiple ideas I have for the next post, yada yada.

Anyway, I AM sorry! And you know I love epics. So here goes.

I think your advice is even more specific than mine--going forward to work with what we have, is what I said, but you have very specific examples.

The problem is of course, where are these volunteers of the non-DNA sort going to come from? I don't know the answer to that either. So far I am doing some quick-n-dirty research on other countries and trying to see what may be found.

The advantage to using other countries is that nobody feels dissed at home--the disadvantage is that nobody feels like what works elsewhere applies totally to our own culture.

So I am interested in your opinion on incentivizing this volunteerism, as well as making incentives for improvement for the people who need the help.

We all have to think pretty hard, and then I guess I have to get up and do. . . which, as you say, we should not be alone, or live alone.

Sorry this took so long,
Really a very fine comment.

Thank you!
Ann T.

Momma Fargo said...

This is a brilliant piece of authorship, Ann! You know how I feel about the nuclear family falling apart. I think it drives a lot of America's problems. Good work!

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
It's partly your inspiration that made me post it! Thank you very much!

Ann T.