Living With Extended Family: The Ultimate Mother-In-Law Nightmare, Or A Gift?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Everyone's talking about Marian Robinson, President Obama's mother-in-law, living in the White House. Most make jokes, but I'm with Liz Smith and Craig Wilson; we believe that Robinson's presence is a good one for the family.

We're not alone. According to an interview with Edmund Leach published in the July 1974 issue of Psychology Today (People Plan Their Lives In Terms Of Imaginary Systems: Nobody Lives In The Real Word, Elizabeth Hall), "we have made our life very, very difficult by constructing a physical environment that is so inhospitable to the three-generation family."

Some selected quotes from that article:

Hall: ...Some commentators have charged that the nuclear family is unhealthy.

Leach: I don't know that the nuclear family is unhealthy, but in the generality of human experience the nuclear family as an isolated unit is rare. Usually supportive kin live in the same house or up the road so that if there is tension between parent and child, the child can go live with someone else. Or if the couple breaks up, the children won't be in the ditch. But I agree that the highly isolated nuclear family is a problem for most industrial societies.

Hall: In your Reith lectures over BBC you went as far as to say it was "the source of all our discontents."

Leach: And from the reactions to my comments on the the family in those lectures, one would have thought that I was an obscene blasphemer. I thought my observations were commonplace.

Hall: Several alternatives to the nuclear family have been put forth, such as the kibbutz, the group marriage, the commune.

Leach: People say, "Look at Israel, how well they do it in the kibbutz." But Israel is a very small country, you can move in a motor car from one end to the other in a few hours. And the kibbutz covers many different kinds of organizations.

Hall: Not everyone lives on a kibbutz, and the whole situation is unique. Some people object to living in a commune because they say they couldn't stand the lack of privacy. Yet you have written that privacy is a source of fear and violence. Would you elaborate on that?

Leach: In our modern, middle-class society, we are conditioned to value privacy. But almost anywhere outside Europe -- even in urbanized places like Calcutta -- one of the most dramatic contrasts is the lack of privacy. I do think that the more we isolate ourselves from other people, the more we come to fear them. The more people we have day-to-day close contact with, the less dangerous they seem. You asked about violence. Violence is a very strange thing. The popular theme is that this society is going through an epidemic of violence. Now has this society actually become more violent, or have people become more upset about the violence that has always been about them? I have no idea. I do know that the most attractive society I have ever seen was one I visited in Borneo. The whole village was one long-house -- a street of rooms constructed on a platform. There was absolutely no privacy. The people were placid and delightful and never showed any violence to one another. But they were headhunters.

Hall: And we use headhunting as the epitome of violence. This society relies on the written word, and the act of reading demands privacy.

Leach: We have created all sorts of devices that seem to require isolation and privacy. Take music. In a primitive society, the sort that anthropologists study, one encounters music at communal affairs, feasts and parties. Everyone gets together and makes noise, and the musicians come out. Here we turn on the hi-fi and adjust the tone precisely right and everyone must keep quiet and listen to the music. This is a sort of fashion. It reflects out love of privacy; I don't think it reflects our love of music.

Hall: I'll admit that the hope of industrialized countries returning to the communal structure of a nondeveloped society is as futile as the search for the Garden of Eden. But is there no way for us to reconstruct the extended family?

Leach: The problem with artificial constructs like the kibbutz, the commune, or the group marriage is that they are artificial. The nuclear family is in trouble because of the social mobility in a society where one changes jobs frequently. It is not the presence of people which is needed, but the obligations of kinship that are wanted. I seriously doubt that you can construct artificial neighborhood groups and say to each person, "Look, you have equal obligations to everyone in the neighborhood whether they are kin or not." I don't think it'll work.

Hall: There are functioning communes in the U.S.

Leach: There are experimental communes here, too, and they are more or less successful according to the idealism of those who contribute and the degree of stable employment among commune members. There is one commune made up of middle-class professionals that's been going for 20 or 30 years, but they all have the same kinds of jobs they had 20 years ago. There's no mobility; the children are pooled in a play group; wives who want to work, those who want to look after children, do that. But I don't see this becoming a general pattern in our society. I think we have made our life very, very difficult by constructing a physical environment that is so inhospitable to the three-generation family. The houses that have been built in the last 20 years just won't accommodate three generations, so we are making it difficult all ways: bad for the children, more tension for the parents, the old people out on a limb.

Hall: Do you think that the nuclear family is inexorably bound up with capitalistic society?

Leach: That's a tricky question. What do you mean by "capitalistic society"? The modern industrial society developed in Europe and in America in contexts where the nuclear family was the accepted norm. Since then Japan has industrialized, and there kinship obligations are getting worked into the structure of industry. The nuclear family is the norm in Soviet society, but there is little mobility of labor and you can compel people to stay in the same place for most of their lives. I think the correlation is not between capitalism and the nuclear family, but between the nuclear family and the Protestant democratic idea that every individual should be free to move wherever he wants and to sell his labor in the open market. It is difficult to see how such a system could operate in any context other than that of the isolated nuclear family.

Hall: Then a change in the family arrangement would necessarily mean giving up that sort of freedom.

Leach: So it would seem. Kin groups can function effectively only if most members are clustered in one place. Apparently we must choose between curtailed social mobility and an isolated, stress-ridden family life.

I think there are some great points about privacy and mobility helping to create the demise of generational family living -- and, to some extent, even living hear extended family. I'm not sure the Obama's are poster-children for this with mobility, but I think they'd agree that it takes work and sacrifice of individuals within the family to maintain both living together as a unit and remaining near extended family.

I remember when I worked for a homeless organization in town, how there were a disproportionate percentage of white people in our shelter and receiving our services...

While the community's Asian and Hispanic populations were, comparatively & statistically, poorer than whites, it was the white population which seemed to end up homeless more often. It didn't take long to see how the Asian and Hispanic communities were culturally different. They not only lived in multi-generational family settings more often, but when an extended family member lost or was at risk of losing their housing, they quickly took them in -- be it one person or an entire "nuclear" family.

Whenever I describe this to white people, they wrinkle their noses and talk about how crowded, uncomfortable and not private such living would be. But any and all of these complaints are rather meaningless to those who are homeless.

I lost count of how many times I heard (mainly white) folks say that their families never offered to take them or even just their children in.

With all the mobility, social mobility & physical mobility -- moving simply to keep or access employment, these issues are multiplied. And if you have no place to turn to for emergency housing needs, how assisted are you in terms of your daily parenting and marital stresses? If your mother-in-law or other extended family member could live with you, sparing them living expenses and you child care concerns and expenses, wouldn't that be beautiful?

Now maybe you'd like to consider having your in laws move in, maybe even make an accessory apartment to have the extra room -- and privacy.



The filter is the map; the map is not the territory.


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