Sunday, September 11, 2011

Coda 3: On family

If family also needs a new tradition, what might it look like? Family is detaching itself from marriage or extending beyond it. It's worth noting this. It means that marriage in the context of this essay should be understood as any pairing that, formally or informally, acknowledges and seeks recognition as such, from each other and from others. I want to distinguish this from what Roger Fry described as a "little marriage" - his brief but intense relationship with Vanessa Bell, an innately domestic person, although iconoclastic. We might call this an affair, but Fry aptly captured the fact that it was more. And he suffered more because of it, being attached not just to her, but to the domesticity she enlivened. That domesticity pulled him psychologically into the orbit of her family, where indeed he remained, but further from its emotional heart than he desired.
    This reaches to the borders of friendship, a separate topic, but I mention it to say that the boundaries of marriage are broad, not only along the formal-informal axis, but on the brief-long axis, too. I would put the Fry-Bell "little marriage" in the friendship category, but the placement is arbitrary.
    Another trend, still being fought by the forces of reaction, is the pairing of men, of women, and of older women with younger men. Paralleling this is the decision of single women to have children, often with a gay donor who participates in the child raising, sometimes with his partner. These families are common now in urban America. They are families, that's the point, and a new tradition of family has to include them.
    Social transformation happens at the edges. Vanessa Bell, independently wealthy thanks to a devoted, tolerant husband and a legacy, lived as she wanted and had a daughter with the lover who, despite a world of differences, was her closest friend. In a way, she perfectly exemplifies the motive power of family, which held hers together despite its unorthodox arrangements. She also exemplifies the fluid boundary between love, marriage, and friendship. Artists and writers stake out this territory: Picasso, Stein. The poor and dispossessed also redefine life as they struggle to cope with it. Sometimes they resemble each other, these two categories, but the children of the poor and dispossessed, as they rise, often crave a conventional life. They reach a point where they feel they have something to lose and conventionality can help them secure it. (Maslow's hierarchy of needs is relevant here.)
    A new tradition of marriage needs to encompass the expansion of its boundaries. It needs to enable the members of the expanded family to identify themselves as such. It needs to recognize that this expanded family, too, has ties that are indelible. This isn't a simple issue - the old tradition of family maps to other concerns, like inheritance, in its aristocratic and bourgeois manifestations. This migrated to rights and responsibilities, especially in the era of no-fault divorce. The new tradition would grant a kind of indelibility to the new range of familial relationships, absent issues like abuse that require judicial intervention. In the end, the rights and responsibilities may end up being defined across this larger collectivity, the expanded family.
    Because this overlaps the legal apparatus that's grown up around the family, I run the risk of seeming idealistic and unrealistic. When I look at my own limited experience with family situations that challenged convention, I would say that what was crucial to a good outcome was the shared desire for it. That desire led the individuals involved to set aside their theoretical prerogatives and consider the outcome. And because of this - because of the familial love that each person felt toward the one most at risk - that one now has an expanded family to draw on and identifies with all of it. There were formal agreements behind this, but in the end they never really figured. Would it have been different if those agreements had never been formalized? I'm not sure, but I don't think so.
    Not every marriage has offspring, but dependencies arise. For example, a partner gets sick or lapses into senescence. These are situations that tax the resources of any individual. A new tradition of family would both recognize the idea of collective responsibility and tie it to a social safety net that came into play with certain triggering events. For an advanced country, we are shockingly stupid in the way we provide supports, rarely doing so when they're actually needed. This is perverse. As a country, we are lucky to have a positive birthrate. Alone of the developed countries, we're still adding population and the ratio of young to old here isn't yet disastrously out of whack. Our support system is tied to individual families and to organizations like churches. That's not sufficient. Moreover, it runs the risk that public support will be increasingly shaped by agendas opposed to "non-traditional" families and women's rights, either because the government channels support through them or because it defaults to them entirely.
    A new tradition of family needs to cut the family loose from every organization that's ever tried to kidnap it for political or religious reasons (which is often the same thing). It needs to reassert the underlying realities of human life and gear public support accordingly, sharing responsibility across a larger community of which the family is part. The key phrase here is "sharing responsibility" - not the handing over of responsibility, but acknowledgement that sometimes our human resources aren't enough. That's when families fall apart, with huge social costs. A new tradition of family would focus on this.

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