The nuclear family has become an anachronism.
The concept of a father, a mother and two or three children has become the stuff of situation comedy reruns. The laugh track seems the appropriate accompaniment to an institution that has been reduced to a joke, and a decidedly unfunny one at that.
Right-wing demagogues love to expound on the breakdown of the family, but I find that an untenable position. The family hasn’t so much broken down as been reconstituted. Today’s family is alive and well in all its unpretentious, non-nuclear glory.
I looked up the word family in the dictionary and discovered that it hails from the Latin familias, meaning “household.” How very appropriate. The ancient Latin is a snug fit with modern times, in which a family consists of whoever happens to share a household.
And if we no longer have Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best, we have plenty of television depictions of families of every ilk and shade. Parading across the little screen we have gay couples, single parents, extended families, roommates, friends with benefits, foster parents, adopted children, halves and steps. We leer in half-hour segments at polyamory, serial monogamy and polygamy, practices that may or may not result in families, but are always good for a few yuks and rating points.
Who can blame the networks from holding up a mirror to the lives we lead? On the other hand, I have to wonder whether we may be slipping into life imitating art. Oh, the possibilities! If they’re displaying it on TV, how bad could it be? Perhaps some family comedies need to come with disclaimers saying “don’t do this at home, kids.”
I remember the titillation that resulted from a new word entering the language during the 1980 census. Form followed function: The increasing prevalence of unmarried couples living together demanded that the Census Bureau come up with a term to describe this state of affairs. And so the acronym POSSLQ (pronounced PAH-sell-kue) was coined, “person of opposite sex sharing living quarters.” The inevitable snickers generated much forgettable quasi-romantic doggerel. For example:
Roses are red, violets are blue
Will you be my POSSLQ?
Even in my own family, I am impressed by the variety of living arrangements we have managed to conjure up, either by necessity or by choice. When my wife and I were married fourteen years ago, my mother-in-law lived with her mother, her sister and her daughter. All three have since passed away, and now she lives with her granddaughter. My sister-in-law lives with her daughter and granddaughter, three generations sharing an apartment. Most of my nieces and nephews live with roommates, some of whom may or may not be boyfriends/girlfriends. It changes from one day to the next and I’ve given up trying to keep track.
A few months ago, I found myself discussing the show Sister Wives with my mother. I expected her to be disgusted, perhaps because she’s 79 years old or perhaps because she’s my mother, for God’s sake.
Was I ever wrong. My dear mother pointed out the benefits of having more than one wife to a husband to provide child care, elder care, housework and transportation for the household. This way, she said, if one family member is sick, children have to be carted to school and activities, and still the cooking and cleaning must go on, there is more than one adult to bear the burden without the breadwinner having to take time off work. If he can afford two wives, then why not?
Although polygamy has never appealed to me, I have to admit, my mother’s logic made me think twice. However, despite the admitted advantages of division of labor in an extended family, it’s just not for me.
I think my wife would agree that she has her hands full with the one husband she’s got.