Returning from a brief hiatus filled with desserts galore, serious jet-lag and tinsel still being found in the darndest places – and on the heels of the GOP’s gag-reel of exemplary family standards – I give you the first post of the year:
I don’t know how they do it, but – in addition to convincing us to buy Kindles because actual books are so 2010 – I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the holidays don’t also cleverly manage to evoke an endearing common theme: the importance of family.
As the season recently graced us with its jingle-belled presence, accompanied by rowdy shindigs and visits from rarely seen relatives whose side of the family no one can quite pin-point, I found myself continually contemplating the familial structure; struggling to reconcile its composition here [in most US homes] to how numerous families are setup throughout the Mid-East.
On the surface, it seemed to be a rather mundane concept to devote so much thought to. I blamed it on the eggnog. But still, I couldn’t shake the need to outline what the essential difference was between the ‘spirit of family’ in the East versus the West. Of course families differ according to environment, history and – as evidenced by “Jon & Kate Plus 8“ – chromosomes. But this holiday season, something in particular kept punching me in the face, forcing me to acknowledge it and commanding me to dig deeper for a comprehensive understanding of what made our worlds so distinct. It was the simple, blatant (and from the throbbing pain on my face, apparently violent) fact: this is the worst economic time the US has known in its last 80 years.* With all the Occupy Movements that took place throughout the country in 2011, coupled with countless lay-offs of skilled workers (including many of my college-educated colleagues), I could not shake the disheartening perception that my generation is the first in a long, rich American history that is collectively doing worse than its predecessor. I wondered if this was a global phenomenon, and if this sad reality actually brought to light how the notion of family was yet another stark difference between two worlds.
As I observed how my family (here and out East) consisted of my parents, several levels of aunts, uncles, cousins and all the once-removed, second-tier variations that couldn’t quite be categorized, I compared it to the family anatomies that exist most commonly throughout the West. The structures themselves don’t vary all that much; as divorce and remarriage have become so prevalent in America and abroad. Even in many conservative Islamic and Arab countries, where divorce was once [only barely] socially acceptable in extreme cases of domestic violence, it’s now occurring more frequently and without the kind of public disgrace that formerly accompanied it. I think I speak for us all when I offer up a hearty “Thanks” to Kim Kardashian and ‘The Housewives of (Fill-In-The-Blank-With-Any-Major-US-City)’ for contributing to that trend.
Since the fundamental composition in family structures wasn’t all that different, what was it that was sparking my interest? Then it hit me. Kind of like that punch in the face I spoke about earlier..which explains my other black eye. I tell people I was in a bar brawl to make it sound cool, but admittedly it was this: the idea that so many American young adults in my generation were raised – and therefore expected – to immediately leave home upon turning the ripe old age of 18. This methodology in child-rearing simply doesn’t exist in the common Middle Eastern family mentality. Children there are conversely expected to stay with their parents until marriage (in most cases) or a significant promotion upwards in their career status. Many times even after one or both of those events occur, the choice to stay with their parents does not get passed up without serious thought as to economic and logistic plausibility. It seems that parents in the US – in this case, the current babyboomer-esque population – are in quite the hurry to scoot their kids along to adulthood, ill-prepared or not, and regardless of the the surrounding fiscal atmosphere, so that they may regain the critically lost 18 years that their Harley-Davidson dreams had to be put on hold.
I know that sounds harsh, but I realized that this was the case almost without exception for most of my friends. The topic of living at home was always greeted with such predictable disdain whenever it was brought up in conversation. “Live at home? Are you crazy?!” was the common line likely delivered by anyone who didn’t want to be subjected to the reputational torment that accompanied living with your parents. But as I pondered this notion, and the swelling in my face went down, the sad truth inched its way into my psyche: it may not be so much the children that don’t want this kind of continued familial support throughout their young adulthood – it may be more so the parents who don’t want to give it.
In these times of economic uncertainty and serious instability, I spoke with many people my age who found themselves unemployed and struggling. Many of them had to find ways to survive that were barely legal (thankfully, no one was out on a street corner in fish nets…yet.) Some were able to head back home, finding support among their families, but they were very few and far between. Those that could were almost all second generation immigrants, whose parents came to the US as adults from other countries with similar family mentalities as those in the East. It appeared that indeed, so many American families were apparently set up for an assembly line-like processing; where children were exited from the household to acclimate within a society soon after turning 18 (and in some cases, even earlier).
For these parents, their mentality of a ‘reclamation of youth’ appears to be directly related with the actuality of two things: a longer life span and the opportunity for an active lifestyle well into the latter half of that life span. Does the West talk itself into thinking that it’s “good for the children” to get out in the world and stay out in that world – no matter what it deals them – in order to rationalize a selfish mindset of wanting more out of its own later adulthood? And really, is that so bad?
In examining Eastern families – and Mid-East in particular – the familial philosophy that continues to emerge as the common thread is that physical bonds translate into emotional and spiritual ones. The longer the children (and other family members) can stay close [physically] the stronger the entire familial unit becomes. And in societies where communities are made up of family infrastructures that establish direct ties to culture and religion, the importance of a stable family setup is critical in establishing a respect within that community. To boot, young adults in these Eastern familial structures are expected to contribute to the household; again effectively helping make it economically and logistically stronger. In many Middle-Eastern societies, there’s an inherent draw to the inter-connectivity generated by maintaining a family that encompasses and offers support to its grown children in their early adult lives. Such interaction and participation within each others lives, for these parents, seems to be a critical component in achieving a feeling of satisfaction in the way they’ve reared their child. Of course, for many, this also means replacing their individual goals, wants and dreams with the needs of the family. The pursuit of opportunities that positively, but selfishly affect their own lives is not one that most Mid-Eastern parents are eager to partake in, once children and family are in place. In this way, it seems the common Eastern familial thinking may veer into the realm of ‘sacrifice for the greater good of the family unit’, inadvertently setting up a cycle where personal ambitions are forfeited, by every subsequent generation.
So what can be learned by juxtaposing these two mentalities? Or perhaps even, reciprocating them; kind of like an episode of Wife Swap, but without the annoying wife, husband or whiny kids? Can we truly learn from each other: the West adopting the idea of familial support for children beyond the mere brink of adulthood in order to strengthen the family as a whole; and the East learning to allow room for growth, both for the young adults and that of the parents, as they continue to the next chapter of their lives?
What if the US would’ve embraced this Eastern mindset about family earlier in our history? Would it have helped during times like these, where so many young adults are out of work and finding no place to go? Or is the burden too great on parents – who might also be economically strangled themselves? Would it be better to consolidate resources, both financial and logistical – or is “fend for yourself” the way of the West, with no hope for change?
**A few notes: to be fair, I should add that of course not all Western or American families operate under the ‘out by 18′ governance. Again, economics plays a crucial part, whereby many children – in the West and the East – have to work elsewhere in order to help support a struggling family or parents that are elderly, ill or incapable of working. Also, this is by no means a commentary on what constitutes a family (ie. a mom and dad, two dads, two moms, an aunt and uncle, a single parent, etc). A family is a family is a family – in my mind – and again the actual composition of the people who make it up is certainly not in question. So as I make these observations of two worlds, both of which I know so intimately, I stress that generalizations are therefore, just that: general. Exceptions happily exist on both sides, and the beauty is in finding them.
So what did the crazy holidays help reveal to me? The value of a family structure that embraces the idea of taking care of your loved ones for as long as it is viably possible; not just monetarily, but establishing an infrastructure of support and maintaining the family unit within it – all without giving up personal goals and dreams, no matter what age – is immeasurable. Yet another difference between these remarkable two worlds that this eye is hoping can be bridged, and a balance struck through understanding, exchange and a little more eggnog.
- The Sustainable Demographic Dividend: Global Family Structure (sustaindemographicdividend.org)
- Smaller Families Mean Fewer Siblings to Care for Mom and Dad (psychologytoday.com)