Rarely in American history has so much change occurred so quickly. The pace of life—speed of information and expectations at work and in relationships—is overwhelming. The trade-off is that survival and living a good, long life is rarely in doubt today. Just over a century ago, survival was uncertain, and family members were bound together and dependent on one another, whether they liked it or not. Attachments were fostered within families and among groups of families who shared the same geographical district, food, art, culture and religious beliefs. Communities were often homogeneous and shared norms that everyone understood.
As a psychologist, I am asked if I think that contemporary life might be eroding some of the traditional characteristics of family life that made families safe and dependable. My answer is, “It depends.” If a family is something that keeps old ways going, protects its members from the changing social world, and assures the next generation that they will be better off than their parents were, then that kind of family has little relevance, now or in the future.
Over the past 150 years, technology has changed the nature of our society. People are moving from farm to city, from small groups to large ones, and from homogeneous populations to diverse communities. Globalization brings others into our circles who don’t look, dress or act like us; and while “they” move next door, our own family members are moving across the country and around the world. Social media is replacing our person-to-person connections with devices that tempt us to present ourselves inauthentically and allow us to express our fear, anger and depression, while hiding behind the anonymity of a cell phone screen. Where has the comfort of familial similarity gone?
Despite the challenges of contemporary life, I think there are signs of hope for the family. If you think of “family” as a creative, encouraging, flexible force, that embraces and supports us in our life beyond the fort, then those same devices and little screens can be used to cultivate a full and meaningful life. The little screen can bring grandma into the bedroom to read a bedtime story, even though she lives 1,000 miles away. The screen helps us envision others’ lives and the internet brings people of all kinds into our lives. The popularity of on-line genealogy is proof that the family is still a living, breathing entity, where our own family tree connects us to relatives who lived 200 or 300 years ago.
If we chose to see it so, the family is not disintegrating under contemporary pressures; it is just evolving. From hand-written letters to email and texts, from carriages to airplanes, modern life looks and feels different. Why should the family be an exception? If we look at family life with curiosity and optimism, our newly redefined families will still provide that little fort in the wilderness, but one with open gates and no walls. The new family must use the love we share to help us form new rules and rituals. I think the new family, whether made up of people with shared genes or deep communal ties, will be there to keep us from flying off this spinning globe, until we turn it over to the next generation to do the same.
Roberta Diddel’s class “Our Familes, Ourselves: The Family System and its Impact on its Members” meets Wednesdays beginning February 6 at 1:00.