Ellen Goodman’s Wisdom. “The Functional American Family“, The Boston Globe, November 24, 1994
For everyone who is busy getting ready for Thanksgiving company, take a minute to savor this memory of preparing for a family homecoming. Listening to the news, you’d think we’re all in dysfunctional families. Ellen disagrees with that assessment:
“I am up to my elbows in Thanksgiving prep when the phone rings. There are macadamia nuts to the right of me, pecans to the left. Flour and eggs are wrestling in my mixing bowl.
I reach for the phone, cradling it between my ear and my shoulder and hear the voice of a television producer. She wants to know whether I might be available to comment on the decline and fall of the American family. A story for the season.
As I stand there, covered in batter, she rattles off the horrific list of stories that make her case. The South Carolina mother who drowned her children. The 19 toddlers found in a squalid Chicago apartment without food or clothes. The Pittsburgh couple who took off for two weeks without warning, abandoning three kids to teen-age babysitters.
I listen to this familiar litany with an equally familiar sense of gloom, and then I decline. I’m sorry, but this afternoon, I promised to visit my mother. Tomorrow, the cousins are coming from California. The next day is our wedding anniversary. Tuesday, the young adults we call “the kids” are arriving. And there is a crisis in the care of an aged aunt.
I hang up the phone, wiping pastry dough from my hair and savoring the irony that flavored this exchange. The irony of being too busy with family to comment on its breakdown.
Folding in the last ingredients of my much-too-elaborate recipe, the annual proof of Stewart’s (as in Martha) Disease, I wonder how many of us live with this duality. We are convinced that the great amorphous, generic American family is falling apart. At the same time we are occupied with family maintenance.
All year, I have heard a steady drumbeat of despair about “family values.” The overwhelming majority of Americans agree – 98 percent in one recent poll – that other people are not living up to their commitments. Yet in the same poll only 18 percent believe they’re irresponsible themselves.
Everywhere I go, when people talk about what they value, the topic is their family. The coin of the conversational exchange between friends and even strangers is the state of their parents, their children, their spouses.
In our daily lives, we work at and for family. At 4 o’clock in the morning, when we worry, it’s about our family.
Today, we have higher demands on ourselves as the parents of growing children and longer demands as the children of aging parents. But every morsel of evidence of success – did you read that 8 out of 10 high school juniors and seniors list parents as the people they trust? – comes lost in a survey of family woes.
What do we make of this duality? I wish the producer had asked me that. Some of it comes perversely from the very struggle to do a good job. The harder most of us try, the angrier we are at those who don’t and at the price society pays.
But we are also reeling from something akin to negative advertising about the American family. The horror stories that make the front page, because they are so extraordinary, have slowly begun to be accepted as ordinary.
The radio talk shows, the Limbaughs and Liddys, provide an endless stream of antigovernment messages. But the Jenny Joneses and Montel Williamses, and the Sally Jessy Raphaels present an unbroken stream of pathological families.
On any day, we can channel surf across this electronic byway from murderous mothers to husband-stealing sisters to proud mothers of teen-ager strippers. If Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving family were on the air, grandpa would be a child molester, grandma a recovering drug abuser and the kids would bear sexually transmitted diseases. The abnormal is the norm.
I’m hardly a Pollyanna about family life. I know about the stress of the sandwich generation, trying to be all things to all bosses, parents, children, spouses.
I know that every family has troubles. At some time or other, in some light or other, we all look dysfunctional. But the fact is that most of us are functioning. And loving.
Somewhere along the way Americans have lost a sense of proportion. We’ve come to believe that I’m OK, but you’re not, and that thing called The American Family is most certainly not.
This Thanksgiving Day has always been been more about family than food. It’s the time when Americans travel through airports, highways, ZIP codes, in order to squeeze around the family table and discover how many adults can sit on a piano bench.
Standing in my kitchen, covered in homebaked proof of my holiday excess, I wonder if those of us who are connected by bonds of DNA, marriage, affection and above all else, commitment, can forget for a while that we’re supposed to be falling apart.”
Happy Thanksgiving to Everyone!