Extended Vs. Nuclear Families

There can be a dark side to family get-togethers ... and a bright side to winter blizzards.

| January/February 1984

I have been thinking about the positive side of a Minnesota blizzard. [One] of the blessings is that extended-family occasions come to a halt. Thank goodness. The extended-family dinner is a threat to the pleasure and ease of the American farm family, yet it is hard to say so. In Minnesota we are great protectors of the American family—just as we are one of the last areas in which the small "family farm" idea works and is sacred. We are right about this. The nuclear family is far the best of all the units human beings organize themselves into; when you break it down, its members inevitably pursue lesser, not greater, aims. They settle for cheaper values. Jung says that, when the family breaks, the adult members tend to be frozen at the level of consciousness at the moment of the break. On a less subtle level, people begin following their own noses with more abandon. Experiment takes the place of solid satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of thinking hard.

In the country, family means father, mother, children, and the grandparents; extended family would mean all the above plus the cousins, the uncles, the grownup in-laws on a lot of sides. These relations tend still to be living near one another, and often a farm couple's first five or six Christmases together will be spent in their presence.

The extended-family goals are not the nuclear-family goals; what nourishes extended-family society is starvation fare for the nuclear family. Here is how it works. If people are eccentric and verbal and curious about other lifestyles, then the extended-family dinner plus afternoon plus supper plus afterward is a cheerful, messy, engaging, affectionate business even when it does drag on all day (as it always does). But if people are shy or harassed or not perfectly confident about their accomplishments, then the extended-family holiday is informed by some misery along with the Jell-O and fruit and Rice Krispies bars.

My suspicion is that prairie families have been ruing these large, hearty, 100 percent threatening occasions for over a century now, but no one dares say anything because it sounds mean—and it does sound awfully mean to say you don't want the whole family back over this year. If you took a poll with promise of utter secrecy, I feel sure the vote would be 98 percent "We should have gathered only two times instead of four times this year because I was never so tense or bored in my life" and 2 percent "Well, Merv and LaVonne had them last year, so we figured it was up to us to have them all this year". Such remarks never get made aloud, however, because our general cultural stance in the countryside is that we wish people "neighbored" more, the way they used to, and we wish families were sticking together more, the way they used to. Who can imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder wishing the folks were not all going to show up? In other words, we are torn about this.

I will describe what works badly in big family occasions. Unlike lions and dogs, we are a dissenting animal. We need to dissent in the same way that we need to travel, to make money, to keep a record of our time on earth and in dream, and to leave a permanent mark.

For that kind of thinking and feeling we need gravity. We need a chance to be slow, turbid, and grave. Nothing could be worse for this than to be desperately busy all week, week in, week out, at hard physical work and then have a whole valuable, holy holiday taken up by an extended-family occasion. There is little chance to talk about anything. If one says, "Well, the Farmers Union has an interesting project on hand-they're bringing the humanities to nontraditional audiences," a responsible hostess is likely to respond: "Oh—if you're going to talk politics then . . ." And if one says, "You know, I often wonder what happens in that bourn from which no traveller returns—you know? I mean, what dreams'll come when we've shuffled off etc.?", a responsible hostess might say, "Oh, for morbid . . ." I don't know why it is that in large family gatherings it is morbid to discuss life after death, whereas it is good, workable smalltalk to discuss accidents involving young fathers and bailing-wire winders on their tractors, or the mutilation of cattle by some occult group.


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