Columnists > Voices

Severed at the root

Families were always eclectic mixes, but marriage was the foundation

Issue: "Unions: Dues and don'ts," Nov. 30, 2002

FAMILY IS IN THE NEWS AGAIN. NOT ONLY IS THE holiday season a time for soft-focus commercials about the joys of gathering around the Butterball turkey and pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip, but Al and Tipper Gore are promoting their new book Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family. Judging from reviews, Mr. and Mrs. Gore come to the less-than-startling conclusion that family composition has changed a lot. Most of us could have told them that, and saved them the trouble of writing a book.

Consider the composition of a not atypical Thanksgiving gathering: widowed Grandma, Aunt Sue who's divorced, Aunt Kim whose husband stayed home, Aunt Jenny and her partner Stephanie, along with Stephanie's two kids and Uncle Todd (who separated from Jenny years ago but they never formally divorced and are still the best of friends). Nieces and nephews with their current boyfriends, girlfriends, and babies (some of whom will not be part of the mix next year) fill out the roster. Everybody bows their heads for a blessing and enjoys a traditional dinner followed by the traditional football game.

The hasty revision that marks our times would like to define a family as any combination of people who agree to split living costs and put up with each other. Such haphazard groupings can "work," after a fashion, especially when certain elements of tradition remain: distribution of labor, shared resources, group vacations, private jokes, and reminiscence. There can be comfort in such arrangements, a sense of home as the place where, as Robert Frost wrote, "they have to take you in." Most people yearn for that warmth and acceptance, and will work through flare-ups and misunderstandings (to a point, at least) in order to achieve it.

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Today's groupings are further proof, to some, that the 1950s ideal of dad, mom, and two kids in a suburban split-level was a sham. But that professed "ideal" has never been the norm. Throughout history any given household was likely to contain orphans, apprentices, unmarried aunts, and disabled brothers-in-law. Until relatively recent times, short life spans ensured that fewer than half the children born would reach adulthood with both parents still alive. Family composition was as eclectic in the past as it is now, except for one thing: the root has been cut. The root is marriage.

Many people no longer consider marriage necessary for building a family; that is the essence of the transformation noted by the Gores. But they fail to understand it. The very title of their book, Joined at the Heart, implies that relationships, not bonds, are what make a family. They see marriage as an arrangement based on shared experience and mutual self-interest. They see family as support group and marriage as companionship, no more permanent, say, than a tennis team.

But companionship is not the primary reason why "a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is not an endlessly negotiated relationship between individuals; it's a union. C.S. Lewis sheds some light on this, in That Hideous Strength: "Those who are enjoying something, or suffering something together, are companions. Those who enjoy or suffer each other are not." Exactly. A husband and wife are not merely making tracks side by side down life's road; they're making tracks in each other. The very idea offends our cherished autonomy. Besides, it hurts.

Yet you see them still, older couples who have enjoyed and suffered 50 years or more together and over the course of time have molded each other to fit. Personality quirks that used to irritate now raise a smile. Topics that once were argument fodder have worn smooth around the edges. Paul compares it to the great mystery of Christ and His church: He submitting to her flesh in order that she may be conformed to His spirit. Even in unbelievers, it's a beautiful picture. In Christians it's a heavenly calling. Marriage really is bigger than the two of us.

With its central nerve severed, it remains to be seen how the "transformed American family" will weather old age and the long-term challenges of failing health and imminent death. We may be approaching an age of impersonalized groupcare. That would be ironic--the generation that valued individual freedom above all things, breathing its last in communal anonymity.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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