Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Families: A precious roller coaster ride

Families are diverse and dynamic institutions. They comprise the people you don’t necessarily choose to be in your life, the people you grow up with and with whom you share many experiences, both good and bad. They are the people who you go through various stages with, loathing them at times and wanting to emulate them at others. They are also the people who you choose to bring into your life through marriage, a civil union or some other kind of domestic partnership, and they are the people, whether an actual family member or a friend, who you can always count on to be there for you no matter what, the people who you know will always give you a place to call home.

As indicated in the above paragraph, there is no one definition of a family. Several decades ago, in the 1950s especially, the majority of Americans would have defined a family as a mother, a father, one or more children and a dog. Today, however, a family can be defined in numerous ways: the aforementioned example, a single mother or father, and a divorced, remarried, inter-racial, gay or lesbian couple, among others. Jim Rule’s song, “A Family is What You Make It,” perfectly illustrates the idea that a family means something different to each person. The lyrics are as follows:

I used to believe that a family
Was a mom, and a dad, and 2.3 kids,
and a great big station wagon or a mini van
And a house and a dog and a cat.

But now that I've seen lots of families,
I know it's not always like that,

Because a family is what you make it.
It's you and your loved ones, whoever they are.
You've got to give and take it.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.

I used to believe I was normal
Now I don’t know what that means.
‘Cause if your family keeps you cozy and warm all right
and fits you like a pair of your favorite jeans

That’s what’s important. That makes it right,
Snug as a bug on a cold winter’s night.
Someone to love you and someone to fight
for your right to be just who you are.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.
With understanding and love, your family's gonna go far.

However, no matter how one defines a family, there are going to be many trials and tribulations. As much as I would like to believe that the perfect family exists, it doesn’t. It would be ideal if every family could be like the Cleavers in the 1950s show, Leave it to Beaver, or the Brady Bunch gang, where problems are always resolved and everyone ends up being happy together. Instead, family relationships, just like any type of rapport, are like a roller coaster ride, taking each individual through many ups and downs over time. The 1998 movie, Pleasantville, demonstrates the idea that there is no such thing as the perfect family. In this movie, the two main characters, David and Jennifer Wagner, played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, are changed into the characters of a 1950s show that depicted the perfect family, where the father comes home from work, saying “Honey, I’m home,” to a house full of smiling faces and dinner waiting on the table. However, as the movie progresses and David and Jennifer influence the Pleasantville residents, this perfect lifestyle diminishes. For example, Betty and George Parker, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy, who depict the ideal couple, grow apart. The primary reason for this break in the marriage is that the two want different things. George wants things to stay as they were while Betty prefers her new life of color and excitement. Perhaps deep down Betty was always unhappy with her “perfect” life but suppressed her feelings. The new ideas that David and Jennifer introduced were the catalyst for her to release these emotions and seek a more liberating life. George is not able to respect his wife’s changes and new desires, which causes him much grief and ultimately ends their relationship. The following clip illustrates George’s inability to accept change and move on.

Marriages often end when there is a lack of sacrifice, commitment and respect, as in the Pleasantville scenario. Problems can arise in a marriage when one spouse decides to put work first and sacrifice time with family. An example of this comes from last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. In one scene, Dr. Bailey, played by Chandra Wilson, and her husband argue about the number of hours she spends at the hospital. He tells her that the only time he sees her is before he goes to sleep at night and for a few minutes in the morning before she leaves again. Her work habits are an obvious strain on their relationship. However, issues with gender roles are also responsible for their problem. During the argument, Bailey’s husband indicates that he does not like the idea of staying home with their newborn son while she goes to work. Stay-at-home dads are becoming more common today, yet Dr. Aaron Rochlen, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas, notes in his babble.com article, “Maybe We Are Mr. Moms; Dad Survey Tells All,” that it is still difficult for men to leave their traditional role as breadwinner. He refers to a study of stay-at-home dads conducted at the university in April that found that the happiest stay-at-home dads were the ones who did not fit the traditional gender roles. He notes that according to the survey, “those who seek dominance over women, have trouble expressing themselves, feel they must do everything alone and have a penchant for John Wayne movies have a tough time on the at-home homefront.” Judging from this survey, it is likely that Bailey’s husband cannot accept any changes in the traditional gender roles.

When all of the important facets of a relationship, including caring, compassion, commitment, trust and friendship, diminish too much, then the relationship will also diminish. My aunt and uncle are an example of these fading elements. They often fought with each other and expressed their anger very clearly by attacking each other verbally and even going as far as throwing dishes at each other. The primary reason for these continual arguments was that they lost respect for one another, and my aunt lost her trust for her husband after she found out that he cheated on her. Their weakening relationship eventually led to divorce. My aunt has since remarried and seems happy with her new family. So “cleaning her house” with her ex-husband was necessary for my aunt to recover her happiness. The funny thing is that now both of them are friends and seem to get along better than when they were married. I guess that a romantic relationship was not right for them.

Societal pressures can also cause problems in families. First of all, Rebecca Sweat notes in her vision.org article, “Frenzied Families,” that there are more social pressures on parents to create enriching opportunities for their children. As a result, the parents enroll their kids in various activities, hoping that they will become successful, well-rounded individuals. William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids, points out that “we have higher expectations today of what our children should be experiencing, what they should be learning, and what they should be doing.” Yet, at the same time, the parents are creating busier lives for themselves and their children, which deprives them of quality time together. Sweat points to a 2001 study at the University of Minnesota, which found that conversations between family members in a household decreased by 50 percent in the past 20 years. She notes in another vision.org article, “The Family that Eats Together,” that “when family members are constantly on the go, one of the first casualties is the family meal.” In fact, according to the Food Marketing Institute, only 40 percent of American families eat dinner together, and that is only two or three times a week. When family members are so busy, they have less time to communicate with each other, share experiences and just enjoy each other’s company. When I was younger, I always used to eat dinner in front of the TV while my parents and brother ate together at the kitchen table. Then one day when I was about 12 years old, I decided to sit at the table, and it was such a different and better dinner experience. I was able to tell them about my day and learn about theirs, which is important when everyone is not together during the day. Now that I think back at the time when I ate in a separate room, I don’t know what I was thinking because today, those dinners with my family are times that I miss deeply. Ironically, I missed those family dinners this Thanksgiving because this was my family’s first holiday without my brother. He got married during the summer (the photo at the top is of the wedding), and this holiday was spent with my sister-n-law’s family. We were not able to have Thanksgiving with everyone because her family is in Florida, and the travel expenses were too much for both families. This experience was difficult for both myself and my parents, but I think more for my parents since they were not expecting shared holidays so soon. My brother and sister-n-law started dating last November, were engaged by May and married in July — a completely different love style than my parents, who dated for two years before marriage, were used to. Although it was saddening not to see my brother where he usually sat at the table, I think I handled the situation pretty well. However, I now know more than ever that time spent with family is precious and should never be taken for granted.

Another issue that can cause problems in families is when individuals go through various stages of life, as indicated in Gail Sheehy’s essay in Mercury Reader, “Predictable Crises of Adulthood.” One stage in the Sheehy’s “development ladder” occurs between the ages of 18 and 22. During these years, individuals often rebel against their parents and want to prove to themselves and to everyone else that they can take care of themselves. Individuals during these years will also try to avoid being seen with their parents in public, especially among their peers. The following clip from “8 Simple Rules...For Dating My Teenage Daughter” epitomizes this phenomenon. In this scene, Bridgette, played by Kaley Cuoco, doesn’t want anyone at the mall to know that she is related to her father, played by the late John Ritter, and bother, played by Martin Spanjers. In fact, she says that she wants to stay at least three steps behind them. I can relate to Bridgette’s feelings because when I was in high school, I never wanted anyone to see me with my parents. I guess you could say that I was embarrassed of them.

However, I now think it is important to accept all family members no matter what their little quirks might be. Learning acceptance is something that Clark Griswald, played by Chevy Chase, in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation needs to learn. Since he thinks that some of his family members are bizarre, time spent with them during family get-togethers is something that he dreads. However, when getting past everyone’s oddities, families will be able to have an enjoyable, and in the Griswald’s case, comical, time together.

Therefore, the relationships between family members come with many ups and downs. However, if we learn to get through all of the low points, we will be able to not only maintain but also enjoy those precious rapports. After all, when we reach the bottom, the only way to go is up.

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