My daughter Deborah recently gave birth to Eva. Family members arrived soon thereafter (one can imagine the prehistoric origins of such in-gatherings of the clan in an effort to determine or confirm the likely father) to offer congratulations and, quite predictably, to go on record with their first impressions. “Who does the infant take after?” Everyone felt obligated to provide an opinion. The subject dominated the conversation. Family features and traits were identified (“She’s a good eater.”) and credit assigned if a consensus emerged. Claims were made, supporting evidence put forward and contrary opinions advanced. (“I don’t recognize the hair”.) Because heredity involves a fluid genetic stream supplied by an extensive network of individuals, it’s possible to range pretty far afield here. Distant relatives barely acknowledged could nevertheless end up in the mix as readily as those close of kin.
Opinions flew fast and furious. Some focused on facial evidence; others relied upon body shape. Agreement was not easy to come by. Further complications arose from the fact that in the early weeks the situation was remarkably fluid as the baby’s features changed, creating obvious disappointment for some, but also opening the doors for others to stake their claims.
Each encounter with Eva prompted renewed discussion and debate. Some referenced family baby pictures still in their possession to support their contentions. Meanwhile my daughter and her husband looked on delighted at the attention their child was receiving while advancing their own, obviously legitimate, claims. Compromises were possible, however, once discussion turned from the infant’s overall appearance and focused upon specific features. Concessions were forthcoming from all concerned parties. Some conceded the eyes, but claimed the nose. Others insisted upon the cheeks and bargained away the lips. The hair was a bone of contention, but judgments regarding the chin gained acceptance. Once the conversation expanded to include temperament, sleeping and eating habits, the possibilities for give and take on all sides expanded greatly.
Meanwhile Eva began to cackle and coo, oblivious to the ongoing debate over her genetic inheritance. But we shouldn’t be deceived. She was probably taking it all in and perhaps was upset at being used to satisfy the expectations and needs of individual family members. No doubt, in the years to come, she will reject being defined by others and insist upon establishing her own unique look and identity.
Rather puzzling is the fact that across sizable swaths of upscale suburban communities, car owners seem eager to share their domestic demographics with the rest of us. They have converted a portion of their rear windows into a platform for publicizing their family structures. Employing clear plastic cartoon and stick cutout figures, several inches high, which adhere to the glass, they’ve aligned a display of both their human and animal household inhabitants. So you will see a window decorated with cheerful representative figures of a man, a woman, and a boy and a girl, or another with two parents, a teenager, a baby and a dog, etc., etc., The larger the family constellation the more expansive the display.
Why are people assembling these public displays? While these are not strictly bumper stickers, we can identify a long and lively history of such in America ranging from innocuous commercial stickers, those proclaiming college affiliations, candidate preferences and controversial public policy positions (war, abortion, guns, religion, etc.). People who might otherwise be reluctant to offer their opinion in public seem more comfortable presenting them anonymously along the rear ends of their automobiles. Indeed, a case could be made that bumper stickers have long represented a unique and irrepressible public forum, albeit with issues often reduced to abrasive slogans. Nevertheless, people have been speaking up, letting others know where they stand, what they are thinking – and then quickly driving on.
I suppose we have to regard these family “portraits” in the current context of declining personal privacy in America and the willingness of many people to reveal much about themselves, information once considered “no one’s business”. One should also recognize an egotistical component as well. It began many years ago with the display of college stickers on the back windows of cars. Surely some part of the message was “We’re sending our kids to college (especially the elite institutions) – and you’re not.” (Until recently, fewer than three of ten Americans of college age were enrolled.) Then there were also the bumper stickers that announced that a child of theirs had been designated an “honor student” by his or her school. Bragging rights surely were among the motives behind these mobile announcements.
This brings us to the current crop of family figures. Why go to the trouble of adorning your rear window with representations of household occupants, unless there’s a message you intend to convey? So what’s the pitch? It may be, strangely enough, a desire to proclaim their ordinariness. At a time when family structures are undergoing unprecedented “deviations”, these stickers assert that you’ve maintained the “proper” course, remain a traditional nuclear family, its standard components intact (no grandparent figures appear). Here is both an expression of stability, pride and defiance and together with smugness that implies superiority.
As always, bumper stickers provoke reactions. Among those recently on view was one featuring window stickers, all skull and cross bone figures, while another declared defiantly – “No one cares about your family stick figures!” Please check rear windows for further developments in this ongoing “dialogue”.
A recent New York Yankees radio promotion employed a narrative structure involving estranged brothers who had not spoken to each other for twenty years. But then when one of the brothers acquires free tickets to a Yankee event and offers to take his brother, the rift is instantly healed.
That this minor promotional campaign chose to deliver its message by highlighting family dysfunction is, to say the least, odd. Yet here was some script writer who believed that this scenario would ring true to audiences. What was he tapping into?
It’s doubtful that the United States, in elevating the family to sacred status, was special. But maybe it was insofar as it was responding to certain persistent threats to family life here, e.g., individualism, geographic mobility and the pressure on extended families posed by urban living. Perhaps we found reverential attitudes reassuring amidst a turbulent society.
Family farms, family businesses, family vacations, family loyalty, family reunions, family values – all evoke warm feelings, identify a set of fundamental relationships that we celebrate. We view the family as a source of caring, instruction, comfort, emotional support and financial assistance – in short a sanctuary against a cold and often impersonal society.
Given the polarization of our politics, and the attendant deadlock, large segments of the public are urging our leaders to cultivate the art of compromise, an approach little in evidence these days. Without negotiations and the give and take that invariably accompanies such transactions, vital legislation stalls and progress halts.
I was reminded of this just recently when two of my grandchildren (ages 2 and 5) arrived with their father for a visit lasting several days. What impressed me was the persistent adversarial stance assumed by both my son and his kids (and by extension between most parents and their children). There were few if any successful unilateral decisions that my son could impose. Negotiations were the order of the day, with outcomes not easily predictable. The kids knew what they wanted and what they didn’t want and getting them to make concessions required all the skill, self-control and patience their father could muster.
At most every turn there was stubborn resistance; only some form of triangulation seemed able to resolve differences. With breakfast on the table, the kids declared they’d not be ready until the cartoon they were watching ended. When placed on a seat, they decided it was not the one they wanted, so transfers were required. Offered apple juice, they wanted orange juice. But they would not drink the juice until given a straw, which had to be a flexible one, able to bend at one end. Spilling dry cereal on the floor seemed of little concern to them. They refused initially to allow their chairs to be moved closer to the table. Eventually they gave in – though not entirely.
And so it continued each and every day. One of them insisted her diaper must have a bear design on it. She’d accept no other animal. Unfortunately my son had but one of these left. What he was obliged to do was pretend to use the “bear” only to substitute another pattern at the last second. He would then suggest a particular shirt to wear. She wasn’t buying it. What followed was a thorough review of all available shirts until she finally settled upon one. Getting socks on didn’t go all that smoothly either. The older one was fully capable of putting them on, but preferred that her father do it. He thought otherwise. Negotiations followed. Each did one sock.
Going out usually involved a battle over stroller occupancy. Which one would get to sit in it. Diplomacy generally prevailed here. At times both were crammed in together; on other occasions the older girl stood on a lift behind her seated sister. At the toy store the struggle continued. Each fastened upon an item my son had no intention of buying. Alternatives thus had to be discovered and deftly substituted for those initially chosen.
I could go on to review the process of taking a bath or preparing for bedtime, but the point has by now been established. Each day was filled with similar episodes that required deliberation and compromise. Much like a game, each side understood the “rules” and sensed how matters would be resolved, if they played their cards right. In virtually every instance decisions were reached, both sides eventually accepting the outcomes, confident that they had not surrendered, but merely compromised.
So the message to our political leaders is clear – take a lesson from how American parents and their children learn to get along.
So I’m at this dinner party recently, engaged in pleasant conversation with a fellow I just met when, out of the blue, he asks whether I’d like to see a picture of his grandchild. “Sure” – what else can you say? He pulls out his Iphone, summons forth an image of this cute six month old and of course I tell him how proud he must be. He beams.
What’s going on here?’ Why can’t grandparents restrain themselves? Why must they always steer the conversation around to their grandkids, then quickly follow up with pictures? Why is there such sheer unadulterated joy when they recount the talents and accomplishments of these little geniuses? Had they ever lavished such praise on their own children?
One answer simply involves numbers. Never before in human history have so many grandparents been around at one time. With people living longer that population has mushroomed. No doubt grandparents have always abandoned objectivity when it came to their grandkids. Now that there are so many of them the rising chorus of adulation resounds ever more mightily.
Grandparenting is an ongoing joy ride they’ll tell you. Not that you’ll find them especially reflective, but it must have something to do with the idea of renewal, of fulfillment and legacy, together with the pleasures of parenting light, i. e., being engaged with the kids only at selected times and under favorable circumstances. Visiting with the kids, babysitting if need be, taking them places, buying them clothes and gifts, offering them their favorite treats – it’s all a sheer delight. It’s parenting without pressure. Grandparents, often retired, have time to spare, time to read to them and tell stories, assist with homework, watch them perform. If the kids begin to misbehave grandparents can, without guilt, back off, avoid confrontation, impose no discipline. That’s best left to the parents. Instead they simply can leave
Too idyllic a picture, you say. You’re right. There are “issues” here. (Of course, all along we’ve been talking about “volunteer” grandparents, not those who, out of necessity, are recruited to provide child care, school pickup, meals, etc., while parents are out working.) Parents sometimes complain that their kids are being spoiled by all the attention and unbounded generosity and that grandparents sometimes convey messages and attitudes at odds with parental preferences. Then, too, grandparents sometime question and criticize how the kids are being raised. All this is usually forgotten when grandparents arrive to babysit, feed the kids and put them to bed. What parents don’t enjoy a relaxing night out, minus the babysitting costs?
Back at home now, amidst peace and quiet most welcome, an afterglow from having been with the kids remains. Moreover, their presence is still felt by virtue of the numerous photos of the grandchildren all about, together with displays of their “beautiful” pieces of artwork. Who, therefore, can doubt that the grandkids enjoy a privileged and precious place in their home and in their hearts.