“In Mexico the family seems to be a centripetal force; in the US it is a centrifugal force.”
–Carolo and Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents Stanford UP 1995
On her visit from New York last weekend, Kit had joked with Jake’s brother, her host, while we sat in Mission-Dolores Park. “Are we _those_ relatives?” she said. She meant the ones who take over your guest room or sofa instead of booking a hotel room; the ones who impose. They told of the codes they use to tell out-of-town family they’re welcome but not that welcome: “I’m not sure if you’d be comfortable here, just because there’s a little drug action on my block sometimes…” Someone else said it was kind of sad to have your parents still crashing at your place once they got to sixty. You–or they–should be able to afford a hotel room by then.
As a child I memorized books about English boarding schools and American summer camps, and latched on to independence as a high ideal. I don’t think it was prized in Ireland, especially, but my parents indulged me anyway. (At least until I confused independence with geographical distance so thoroughly that they switched tack with my younger sisters, hoping to keep at least one of us at home.) I was sent on French exchanges and grim au pair summers; let off to London the day I turned 18; allowed to go to college in Dublin and not call home as much as I should have. At twenty I spent a year living in Valencia’s thriving drug district. The Spaniards I knew made it clear that no loving family should let a daughter roam like that, and I looked down on them in turn. Their own kids lived at home until marriage, but I was an adult.
Maybe that’s why I can still push west with a few boxes of books, at an age when my friends are bound more deeply to their places. But now I wonder–I’m a late developer–what’s so great about this Anglo-Saxon cult of individualism? I decided to move to San Francisco when I realized that for all I loved New York, I couldn’t pass the Chemo Test: though my pals filled a room for a surprise goodbye party, I wasn’t sure who I’d call if I got sick. I think of Caitriona’s son, Liam, and am wrenched at the thought of him ever joking about his embarrassing Irish ma wanting to stay at his apartment.
On Sunday I went to a birthday party for a three-year-old friend, where the guests were a mix of Irish and American. The rowdier smallies mauled cupcakes and rear-ended plastic trucks into the kitchen walls, and the placid ones sat on their nappies and supervised the backyard vegetation.
I talked to a Cork woman whose five-year-old son was a hit with the girls at the party. After years in the Bay Area, she was trying to move back to Ireland. It was too hard here as a single parent, she said, and she felt there might be more support at home. You could rely on basic health care, and probably still count on decent free public education. But since she had a good job, those weren’t biggest factors that pushed her home. What wore her down was the lack of community here, the lack of a set of friends and neighbors that the kids could run in and out to, and whom you could call when they were sick. People are friendly here, she said, but still you have to arrange the playdate at a set time and place. It’s always about the kid’s social development, never about giving each other a bit of a break.
I’ve watched my Irish friends with children, and that web of casual support is still there, at least among the ones who aren’t wealthy. “We’re bringing our lads to the park,” Joy might say, “and sure why don’t you send Maya along with us so you can get a few things done?” I thought this was how it worked everywhere. But in San Francisco, Noreen says, she knows one single father in her apartment complex with whom she can trade babysitting from time to time. The kids have no chemistry, and the father regards the time as a bartered commodity to be precisely measured, rather than a way to look out for one another. In itself, the calculation becomes exhausting.
I don’t know how her experience fits with the spirit of the party, which seemed free of the high-impact “parenting” that defines upper-middle-class families. These relaxed parents seemed happy to be nouns, not verbs, and I felt you could drop a snotty-nosed child or two at any of their houses, in a pinch. Tonight I’m going for drinks with a pair of sisters who just bought a three-unit house with their partners and a friend. Laura’s baby is a month old, and Dorothy is due soon. Their lucky babies will grow up with family in a common backyard.
Still, it’s true that American cities have started to price and market many services here that are part of the social contract elsewhere, at least for now. Places like New York and San Francisco, where so many of us live far from our families, are turning to trained and paid doulas for the pregnancy wisdom they no longer get from the community. Human mammals now seek advice from “lactation consultants.” Childcare is bought and paid for, even for a run to the shops. Adult children don’t give up their beds in tribute to the parents who reared them; they show their love and success by buying them a hotel room–and preserving that precious independence.
But “I can do it by myself!” is a line for a three-year-old, not an adult.
Further reading: Doug Rushkoff, intellectual imp, on the American childrearing experience:
Nothing like having a kid to turn you into either a communist or a capitalist.The long radio silence has been due to the intensity of parenting an infant. Sure, it’d be intense under any circumstances, but I can’t help but believe that the difficulty attending to the 24/7 needs of a baby are compounded by the dissolution of both the extended family and community of days past. Indeed, I’m beginning to believe that the fact that human females pretty much require assistance in giving birth might be a way for nature to enforce a bit of community on our species. Human beings do better in groups. Read the rest