Today’s Daily Prompt from The Daily Post asked me “If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find the most shocking?” That got me thinking about how families have changed over time.
Since any ancestor of mine who came back would find that my “family” is me and my feline overlord Jenna, I thought I’d offer some observations on the changes to family in general, and changes in my lifetime in particular. I started this journey in 1957, so my earliest recollections of family probably come from the early 1960’s and after. This corresponds to the period of the greatest change in family here in the U.S.
At the beginning of the 20th century the family was the most important sub-unit of American society, providing biological and social continuity while defining and being defined by society. The family was the center of the consumption, savings, and for some, the production, that was vital to the economic well-being of the nation. The family was also responsible for nurturing and educating the next generation of the workforce, since the social institutions to serve that purpose did not exist as they do today.
In a nation as heterogeneous as the United States there can never be a truly typical family. The concept we all have of a typical family is really just our own family experience asserting bias on our concept. Family characteristics vary widely, impacted by race and ethnicity, age, education, religion, and socioeconomic level, as well as regional differences and all the other societal forces that impact how humans gather together. If we consider the proper characteristic, your family may be average, but typical is a stretch.
Here are some things we can state with some certainty about families, the causes of which are beyond the scope of a mere blog entry. There are fewer Americans living in a family household than in the past. Although those who do live in a family household still constitute a substantial majority of the population, they live in increasingly heterogeneous, unstable households. The economic roles in those family households have changed dramatically, as women are more likely than ever to work outside the home, even if there are infants in the household. And family size continues to decrease, as more women have fewer children later in life. Most of this has happened in my lifetime.
My paternal grandfather was killed in an accident before I was born, so I never knew him. My maternal grandfather died when I was young, and although I have vague memories of him, I suspect those memories are more from a portrait done of him and his son, photos that hung in my grandmother’s house, and anecdotes. My earliest concept of a family is a grandmother, her direct descendants, and their immediate families. When I was very young there were also sisters on my paternal grandmother’s side, though again, I know them best through pictures and anecdotes.
The people who were part of my early concept of family are now deceased or spread across the North American continent, and rarely gather in one place at the same time. My mother and father, along with her brother and sister, have retired to the same community in the American southwest. Most of the immediate families of my grandmothers’ direct descendants (my cousins) rarely speak or communicate in any form. Only two of them formed what would be considered family households today.
But I still consider us a family. And that’s what I think Grandpa Harry and Grandpa Ted would find most shocking. That, in spite of the differences in definition, we’re still family.