Nine years ago, my husband and I jumped at the chance to buy a house we hated. It was ugly and stuck in the ’70s. And not the good kind of 70s. It had bad shag carpet, damaged parquet floors, mustard-yellow formica, peeling siding and all. We did some upgrades, but no Chip-and-Joanna level renovation.
We bought it because my in-laws live across the street.
When people hear this, they often make some sort of reference to Everybody Loves Raymond. And then I joke about how, yeah, it is a little like that sometimes. And then we laugh at the absurdity of wanting to live that close to your parents…or worse yet, your in-laws.
But deep down, the idea of buying land with those closest to us, building homes together, and raising our families in close proximity has been one of my most determined dreams.
So when I came across David Brooks’ new article “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” it was my aha moment. For years, America has celebrated the idea of the nuclear family the way we’ve idolized our individualism. We are raised to forge our lives on our own as adults, and the highest ideal is mom, dad and 2.5 kids living in a suburban home with a station wagon parked in the driveway. But inside those homes, deep loneliness is having its way with us.
We’ve reduced our day-to-day community to just the parents and the kids. Beyond that, our circles are our own. Co-workers. Mom friends. School friends. Internet friends. Rarely is our community shared with our family members. Meanwhile, we’re trying to have it all, with work, raising kids, keeping house, feeding our families well, and experiencing Instagram-worthy girls’ nights out regularly too.
It’s hard. We can’t do it alone. We need community.
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I watched The Farewell this week, a film about a family coming together around a grandmother with a cancer diagnosis—but they refuse to tell her she has cancer. It’s apparently a common practice in China. The beloved granddaughter, Billi, (played by Awkwafina) has grown up in America, and she’s struggling with the ethics of it. Her uncle made a comment that has stuck with me: “Billi, there are things you must understand. You guys moved to the West long ago. You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family. Society. …It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her.”
I’m not suggesting that hiding medical diagnoses is a practice we should take up, but carrying one another’s burdens is. That’s why I have a longing to return to ancient practices of community. Like the family homestead. To live closely, to help each other, to borrow sugar and watch kids and break bread together. To spread a wider net. Ancient families welcomed in strangers and provided for them; family was more than blood. It was those they chose to commune with. They added to their community rather than breaking off from it.
This explains the tinge of grief I feel when fellow parents remind me, “We raise our kids to leave us.” Is it wrong to want to keep them close…to add to our community, not break it up into smaller and smaller pieces? Even now, I’m hesitant to write it down. We’ve so completely shifted our culture to this ideal of the small family; big families who choose to stick together are weird.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a teenager who told me that he loves that his friend group is weird. He said he thinks he could fit in with most crowds, but he loves the weird ones because they’re themselves. It feels safe.
I agree. Here’s to being weird, feeling loved, and feeling safe. Who’s in?