A Centrifugal Force

“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

9 thoughts on “A Centrifugal Force”

  1. Oh, God forbid…

    And I’m sorry about my current bizarre comment set-up. I got spammed so much that I’m experimenting with this approval system, but it’s not quite right yet. But I live for commentary, so post away. 😉


  2. Perhaps what that Cork woman fails to realise is that a community is where a person actually feels happy enough to make the effort to belong. If she move to Dublin she would probably find the same lack of community although to a lesser degree perhaps. Home is a very vague kind of word. I’d NEVER go back to my “home” town but know that in the future at some point I will settle in a different place which has meaning to me and what I do in my life.
    Home is where your heart can take route


  3. I don’t know, Ronnie. I think you’re underestimating the amount of built-in support people have simply by choosing to live in the country they were brought up in, where their extended families, school and college friends still live. I certainly did.

    The US is so familiar that it’s taken me a long time to see the subtle but major cultural differences between the way white, college-educated Americans (and WASPs worldwide, in fact) view the role of family and community, and the way that most of the rest of the world does. If Dublin is now deciding to pay for rather than exchange support, then that’s a further sign that wealthy Dublin wants to buy into that WASP culture. Ugh. Fools. (And note that few emigrants here who talk about going home are excited about Dublin…)

    It’s hard to make the leap from a circle of friends–no matter how wide–to a community you can lean on in times of need. It’s not about effort alone. Without a solid base, ten years just isn’t long enough for many people to build that. Especially in a culture where independence is prized so much that any expression of need is feared and avoided. (My friend John has got around this by establishing a whole San Francisco community of Limerick guys he’s known since the age of ten; the last of the Morrison green card generation.)

    Doug Rushkoff, the media theorist who could hardly better set up materially or socially, talks about his own shock at this realization here:


    Ironically, because there are fewer reliable public social structures, like healthcare and schooling, Americans need each other more than most.


  4. Thanks God people don’nt get excited about Dublin. Its like a big beast that keeps growing out of control. “Wealthy” Dublin and I use that term loosely wants to have it all and have it now. A report in the Irish Independent earlier this week mentioned about how Credit card debt in this country is at its highest. People will try to buy into that WASP culture no matter what it takes


  5. Dervala – you hit the nail on the head, and expressed exactly where my words only floundered. My background is Croatian, but it’s the same. Any non-WASP culture is family-centric, be it European, Asian, South American. And growing up as a first-generation [insert hyphenated-culture here] does have its balancing act. On the one hand, why move out when I can save money at home, and that way be there for my mother in case she runs into financial crisis? (Plus my parents are separated, and I didn’t want to leave her alone, and being the oldest, felt an obligation to stay, esp. when I expressed the desire to move and she responded with “please don’t, I’ll be lonely”). Or be able to save enough of a down payment to buy a nice house when I get married (that’s the general cultural thinking). On the other, I just turned 34, and this bungalow is getting small now, to the point of feeling suffocated. (And mum’s not worried about being lonely anymore.) The concept if individualism isn’t an issue in non-anglo countries. No one in Croatia gives me a hard time about living with mum – it’s expected, since I’m single. It’s just not common sense to go live by yourself when you can save money by staying at home for a while – maybe you have to be poor to get it. What is new is that we’re getting married later and later, so we’re staying home longer than normal. That’s the new issue that previous generations don’t have a baseline of behaviour to draw upon. I really notice how my anglo associates and friends have such a diminished importance of family in their lives. I’ve always found that sad. But this is new anglo behaviour – the older folks in my neighbourhood don’t come from that culture. At least, when they struck out, they were better able to form a community. What has happened with our generation that we are so relationship-retarded? Why can’t I walk down the street and say a comfortable hello to people of my generation, they’re so afraid of creating that fleeting bond, whereas previous generations embraced it? I’m seeing this behaviour in urban Croatia, and to a lesser extent, the villages. My guess is that since we know we can talk to anyone anytime anywhere anyhow, due to the latest technology, we take for granted the opportunities that do occur.

    One commenter did make the important distinction that here, it does not seem like we have a community of support. Reminds me of the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. There’s a reason it exists. (I just saw that that commenter was you – ha). I look at the people I call friends and do a quick chemo test… not many. Though I’ve been to a number of weddings and showers…. that sense of community hits a wall. I guess I could have tried harder, but finding the people you click with is chance and fate. Maybe because we don’t “need” to rely on anyone, so we don’t make the effort. We’ve gotten lazy, would rather not owe other people, so don’t bother to create that relationship.

    An interesting follow-up would be to discuss why individualism is counter-productive to the sense of community. Is there a balance that can be achieved? (Another interesting thing to note, where individualism comes from the anglo culture, so does the “taking a year off to travel” (at least in my few experiences)).

    Thanks Dervala for the insightful post. You got me thinking. And perhaps talking a bit too much. 🙂


  6. Hey Lillian,

    Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful response. I’m glad to get a confirmation that I’m not imagining it. And I smiled at your observation on the year off also being an anglo thing–yes, it is absolutely a phenomenon that comes from the intersection of privilege and individualism. Also, maybe, from the WASP notion that work is everything, and so a year “off” could only mean from work–not family, or life, or anything else.


  7. Hi Dervala, thanks for the comment. I should probably qualify or add to my comment that there are aspects of the “centrifugal force” that are worthwhile, growth experiences, such as leaving home and forging one’s independence, which would only make one stronger. But if your parents come to visit, give them your bed. 🙂

    Also worth noting is that there are other cultures where work ethic is highly valued. The difference appears to be that here work is valued for the sake of work, whereas in other cultures, work is valued for the benefit/results one gets from work. A good work ethic will reflect as improvements in other areas of life – this is key. This appears to be where the balance has been lost here. If work is everything, where’s the life worth living?


  8. Very interesting post – and comments. I was in Mexico for a couple of weeks last month and the difference in cultures between there and here were always striking us. We happened to be there during Semana Santa (it’s actually two weeks) when most Mexicans are on vacation. So we often saw entire families traveling together. Teenagers hanging out with parents and not looking sullen about it. Grandma, aunts, uncles… and all kids up to about 70 pounds being carried around by one or another family member. Not a whiney kid among them. I’m sure there are drawbacks – for instance, we visited a friend of my travel companion who was college educated and pretty much gave up her career to move back home and take care of her mother and grandmother. She can’t really date because of her strict father. But there isn’t the kind of loneliness I find here, and self-centeredness – if you can’t fit into my schedule then we just won’t be friends anymore – or the kind of strict trade-off “helping out” you describe.


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