I'm having a mid-life crisis.1
Theoretically that's good news, as apparently I'll be living past 120. But it's still unnerving. I'm haunted by the feeling that everything is all wrong. We are not where we're supposed to be, and I know of no way to fix the problem. To put it bluntly, we are too far away from our children and grandchildren.
That conclusion did not come easily. I grew up with a good dose of American individualism and training in the idea that the most important family unit comprised father, mother, and children. My father came from the state of Washington, my mother from Florida; they met in upstate New York, whither they had flown (figuratively speaking) without a backward glance, so far as I know, after graduating from their respective colleges. Their siblings spread out as well, landing in California and the Midwest. Our closest relatives were a five-hour drive away. Cousins? I had fourteen of them, but we were nearly strangers: travel was much more difficult in the mid-20th century than it is now, despite not having to deal with the Transportation Security Administration. Nor did I miss them much, I have to admit: I had my parents, my three siblings, and a multitude of neighborhood friends, all quite enough for an introvert like me. Or so I thought, not knowing any better.
Did my mother miss having her parents close by, especially when her children came along? I don't know; if she ever talked about it, I don't remember. I know my father thought she was better off 1000 miles away: his mother-in-law had inherited a forceful personality from her own mother, who was quite a name in the business, political, educational, and social life of her adopted city. My grandmother was a terrific person and a great cook, and I loved our biennial visits to her home.2 Still, there's no doubt she was a Force To Be Reckoned With, and my mother's personality probably blossomed more freely at a distance.
I had no choice, since my own mother had died by the time we had children. My siblings were far away and much younger than I was. (They still are. Every year, they get older—but I seem to be outdistancing them.) So childrearing was pretty much a solitary pursuit, as far as family went, anyway. It didn't seem so onerous at the time: most of my friends were separated from their families, too, so it seemed normal. Thanks to cheaper, modern transportation and deliberate effort, at least the kids knew their cousins better than I did mine.
It worked out. The human family is remarkably resilient, and our extended family has managed to remain as close as any I know, and much closer than many. It wasn't until I became a grandmother that I realized just how wrong the situation still was.
Children, after all, are supposed to become independent, to take wing, to create their own homes and families. It hurt abominably (and still does) when our children were in pain or in need and we could not reach out to them, could not even give them reassuring hugs, but I learned to be thankful that they had friends—and later husbands—who could lend a hand and who would notice if they didn't show up when expected. Sure, I envied my friends whose children went to college nearby, and who could attend their recitals, watch their games, and invite them home for an occasional dinner. But it never felt quite as wrong as being so far from our grandchildren.
Unlike most animals, the human species lives long past the time of fertility. Some have theorized that this "grandmother effect" had an evolutionary benefit, because the help of the grandparents increased the survival rate of the grandchildren. In modern, Western society surviving may not be an issue, but thriving still is. Grandparents can enrich the lives of their grandchildren not only directly, but also second-hand, by taking some of the 24/7/365 pressure off the parents. Calmer parents are more creative, as well as more patient with their children. This can't be done when you live a thousand miles apart, however. Even fifty miles is pushing it, though my [insert much-needed term for "offspring's in-laws" here] frequently and heroically make the hour-each-way drive to spend half a day with their grandkids.
It is not "helicopter parenting" to want to help out for a day when your daughter is sick: to feed the kids and take them to the playground so Mommy can nap. I survived without that help, but how much better it would have been for the children to bake cookies with Grandma than to watch TV—the last resort of a mom who can't concentrate on anything other than not throwing up.
Even in the healthy times, children benefit from regular interactions with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It's important for children to see the many sides of their own family: how they are alike, how they differ. What better way to learn to eat different foods than to spend the night with your cousins and be served something other than your favorite cereal for breakfast? Making cookies with Grandma, knitting with Aunt Susan, birdwatching with Uncle Don ... mom and dad alone cannot provide the variety of learning experiences available through the wider family. And how much better is it to have a crowd supporting you at your recital, or cheering from the sidelines for your soccer game?
When I was a young mother, I worried about the influence on our kids of family members with values that weren't completely aligned with ours. That was a mistake. Well, perhaps the concern wasn't entirely mistaken, but with experience I learned that (1) the differences were infinitesimal compared with the value, experience, and attitude differences they would encounter with their friends and their friends' families; and (2) such differences in those we love—or at the very least are obligated by the family bond not to merely ignore and avoid—provide an invaluable platform for teaching our children the essential life skill of getting along with—indeed, loving, respecting and learning from—those with whom we disagree, all without compromising our own standards.
It might be argued that with today's smaller families mothers don't need the help they once did. It might be so argued—but I don't know of a single young mother who would agree! And in any case, the scarcity of siblings makes the need for cousins all the more acute. I will defend vigorously the "nuclear family" as an ideal—in the sense of children growing up with their own father and mother who are married in a lifelong commitment—in contrast with the many workable and sometimes necessary but inferior substitutes that abound today. Too often, however, the term is used in another sense: to mean "father/mother/two kids." This I find far from ideal: what we want is a clan.
Certainly there are ways to foster the clan feeling even when living far apart. I'm thankful for modern transportation and communication: for superhighways, jet planes, swift mail delivery, e-mail, and Skype. I'm grateful for siblings and children who make the sacrifices and take the time to encourage extended family interaction. Nonetheless, real physical presence, when it happens, still has somewhat of a "weekend dad" feeling: very intense and somewhat indulgent interactions, rather than the calmer experiences of ordinary life.
Deprived of nearby extended family, we make do. The human race is good at making do. We find substitute "grandparents" and surrogate "grandchildren" in our own communities, and our children become more than ever dependent on their age-group friends. It is good to have alternatives; friends and neighbors have their own place in our lives, and it's an important one. But it's not the same as family. Expecting them to fill that niche can stress those relationships unnecessarily. Granted, in this fallen world there are unfortunate exceptions, but as a rule family implies a much higher level of emotional, psychological, physical, and financial commitment than can be expected of non-family relationships. Churches try to fill the role, even calling themselves a "church family"—but Jesus himself stated that giving to God was no excuse for neglecting your own family (Matthew 15:5-6; see also 1 Timothy 5:8).
I know the problem; what I don't know is what can possibly be done about it. Wendel Berry has written a lot about the importance of place (even more so than of family, based on the little I've read), and the folks at the Front Porch Republic are always talking about the importance of localized community. But even if our children choose to live near one set of grandparents (and few do), most often that leaves the other set—and most cousins—out in the cold. Even if we try to keep families together through the extremity of marrying our children off to other children in the nearby community—nearly impossible if they go to college, or to war, or on almost any other adventure—we're likely to end up small-minded, inbred (in the intellectual sense as well), parochial, and stale.
So we make do with substitutes. But it's still not right. It's like formula instead of breast milk; giving birth at a hospital instead of at home; turning our children over to others for the better part of the day instead of teaching them ourselves; homogenized, pasteurized milk from an agribusiness dairy versus a glass of raw milk from a local, pasture-raised cow; children (and adults!) who spend all day indoors instead of out in the fresh air and sunshine, learning nature's lessons and enjoying her bounty. We're glad to have the alternatives available: each is good in its proper place. But no matter how important these may be, they are still only substitutes for the real, best thing, and it's wrong to pretend otherwise.
I'm grateful to all those who are standing in our stead for our children and grandchildren when we cannot, and for the many ways we can still serve them and connect with them without a physical presence. I'm thankful beyond words for the means to travel to our far-flung family, and for a husband who understands how important it is to nourish these relationships. I also realize that the problem is logically insoluble: even if we wanted to leave everything here behind and move close to some of our grandchildren, we'd still be 3700 miles away from the others.3
So it's not so much a mid-life crisis I'm having, as a muddle. My high calling and career, that which my heart yearns for and longs to throw itself into, I cannot do except limpingly. That which I believe is so important for the health of our nation's children is that from which our society is fleeing with alarming determination.
So what to do? Promote the extended family—the clan—when given the opportunity, do what we can with the means that we have to cultivate relationships, and daily put one foot in front of the other on the path as we see it, trusting that whenever God calls us to a task, he will provide the necessary means.
And take refuge in poetry.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."
—John Milton, On His Blindness
1Well, I suppose "crisis" is too strong a word, given that I began this post in 2011, and am still plugging along. Mother's Day seemed like a reasonable occasion to revive it.
2What wasn't to like for a kid? My grandparents lived in a lovely old house two blocks from the World's Most Famous Beach and its awesome Broadwalk! (Yes, Google, that's spelled correctly, even though you tried to change it to "boardwalk." These days people do call it a boardwalk, but it was definitely "broad" when I enjoyed it.) The house is now an attorney's office. Sad, but at least it still stands; many from that era do not.
3Years ago, when people asked if we would consider moving away from Florida, I would reply that I might be tempted, once the kids settled down, to move halfway between them. But it turns out that living on a houseboat in the middle of the North Atlantic won't solve the problem.