Family Ties

When I was a kid, I would have said that one of the basic problems of my family was excessive geographical closeness. Not only were we all stuck in the same house, several of us were usually stuck sharing the same room. For a while I was with Kiskilili and Eve, and I can remember many conflicts over whether the door would be open or closed at night (I think at some point we had a chart of who got to decide on which day), and arguments which arose from different levels of desired tidiness. I still remember the drama which occurred when one of my toys made its way under Eve’s bed, and she claimed that anything which overflowed into her part of the room could be claimed as her own. I was on the top of a bunkbed, and Kiskililli was on the bottom, and I thought I was very clever when I proposed that our responsibility should be to clean underneath our respective beds. I later shared a larger room with Eve, which did not really ameliorate the tension, since she had to shovel my stuff back into my side of the room, and at one point I had a sheet hung around my bed so that I could hide from her. Then it was sharing with Kiskilili, which had its own amount of drama, as we alternated between playing elaborate games, and fighting. (I also had multiple hamsters, and K had a gerbil for a while, and this added to the general chaos.) Finally I got my own room when Eve left for college, and while I would like to say I was sad that she left, it would not really be true.

The irony now is that one of the things I like the least about our current family set-up is excessive geographical separation. We’ve really done well with scattering to the four winds–we have people on the East Coast, on the West, far to the north, and far to the south. I suppose at least we’re all still in the same country. But for me, Elbereth is the only sibling currently in driving distance (and it’s a full day’s drive)–I have to fly to see the rest. I’ve actually managed to do it somewhat regularly; it helps when I’m attending conferences nearby. But every time I leave them, I think, this is just ridiculous. It’s especially hard because you can find ways to stay in touch with adults long distance, but I really need to visit to appreciate my charming nieces and nephews.

In watching this play out, and especially noting some of the challenges faced by the married siblings who have children, I think something is fundamentally missing in the idealization of the nuclear family. We talk a lot about gender and exclusion of family types that don’t match the Mormon ideal, and obviously those are issues that I think are worth addressing. But I also think it’s an odd social development (in the culture more generally) which says that it is normal and expected to have isolated family units as the basis of society. I see a real loss if the extended family is taken out of that picture, as if it’s perfectly normal to expect two parents to pull off this child-raising thing pretty much on their own. As a single woman, I can’t really talk about this subject with any expertise, but I do think that for either of my siblings with kids, having the five single aunts around would be a good thing for all. Though I do think in the church, there’s a lot of effort to counter that problem by (ideally) having wards serve as a kind of extended families.

But back to the issue of geographical separation. It’s much easier than I think it would have been in the days before the internet. We call each other, of course, but there is no way you are going to manage to regularly talk to everyone. We used to have active family email lists, which still remain somewhat active, but much of their energy has been channeled instead to Facebook and blogging. And say what you will about Facebook–one of the reasons I love it is because it gives me a way to be in touch with my siblings in a more casual way, hearing random life tidbits and smart-alecky observations that wouldn’t be worth the effort to compose an email to share. And we have a family Skype every other week, which in classic family form, is often completely nonsensical. I see my siblings online enough, in various places, to feel a kind of basic connectedness–and so I say yay for technology.

I notice that for a lot of people I went to high school with (and yes, I gleaned this from Facebook), their families are still mostly in the same geographical area. And I wonder what that would be like. I wonder whether it’s easy for me to romanticize it precisely because I don’t have it, and whether it could cause more tension and repetition of those family dynamics and roles that you can recognize as problematic as an adult, but you nonetheless re-enact when the family is together. I think my siblings are a crazy amount of fun (and of course excellent bloggers to boot), but we’re not some kind of perfectly harmonious group who never get on each other’s nerves. I need my space, and I imagine they do as well. I just think at the moment I have somewhat too much space. So I’m curious–for those of you who have family close by, what’s that like for you? What are the positives and negatives? And for those of you who are more scattered, how do you manage that? How do you keep in touch?


  1. You are so very lucky to have this closeness as siblings! (“Lucky,” yeah, although it’s clear that you have worked at it, too.) I thought I came from a close family, but two minutes after our parents died it seemed the siblings lost all connection to each other.

    Although my own siblings virtually never say anything, their children on FB have given me a glimpse of their own closeness as siblings. One family with ten daughters sometimes refers to their group as “the aunt colony” as they fuss over each other’s kids. They gather from their own far-flung homes once a year for family pictures and what they call a “super family fun day.” They post pictures of the entire clan eating Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner together.

    But a niece from another family tells me that she has tried and tried — and failed — to establish friendships with her cousins who live in the same town. She thinks it’s not because they don’t like her or don’t have much in common, but because they never remember her. The sisters are emotionally close, and they have each other, and they don’t need anybody else.

    That’s how I feel about my relationship with my siblings. I’m the only unmarried one. They each have their own families, and none of them stops to realize that they’re the only family I’ll ever have. After years of trying everything I could think of to be included, I stopped trying. Now I just watch from a distance on FB so that I can at least add the marriages and children to my genealogical database (the weddings I’m not invited to, that is, and the births they don’t think to mention to me).

    Sigh. Enjoy your siblings.

  2. So much really does depend on the family dynamic and your relationship with each other. My husband and I both grew up far away from our extended families and didn’t really know any of our relatives that well. Neither of us wanted to move back to Utah, but we ended up buying a home here because many of my husband’s siblings and his mother live here. We’re also relatively close to my parents and close to one of my siblings. I really love it; I know we’re one of those annoying Utah couples who spends every other weekend at some family thing, but that’s why we moved here (we do try to hang out with friends too).

    It does help that none of the families here are too big, so gatherings are a reasonble size. Several of my kids’ cousins are only children and I know that having cousins to hang out with is great. My kids love their aunts and uncles and grandparents because they really know them. It also helps that we have a good family dynamic and generally people act like adults and don’t add too much unneccessary drama. I live in a ward where a lot of extended families live, sometimes in the same house, and from what I can tell it generally is a positive thing for most people. You do have to work to maintain the relationship and keep it running smoothly, but that’s the case for all human relationships.

  3. We were scattered by geography and other forces. My Mum’s family was from Utah but she had only one sibling her abusive, alcoholic brother and she has little contact with him or her equally abusive mother. My Dad’s family was in the oil business and he grew up moving a great deal BEFORE he joined the USAF and the LDS church. He was disowned by his highly clannish family for the latter. They also hated my mother because she grew up Mormon and poor so connection with them was virtually cut off overnight.

    We spent the majority of my Dad’s military and diplomatic career overseas and had next to no extended family growing up. Some people have told me I missed out, but knowing my extended family, I don’t think I did.

    What we had instead was a family we picked. I am extremely close to my godparents (with assorted sons and daughters-in-law, uncles, and grandmothers). They are my true extended family, although explaining it to outsiders can be fun. The look on his friends faces when my husband explained he had to go pick up a birthday gift for his “godfather-in-law” was particularly priceless. I also picked up a small but valiant group of close friends who call my parents mom and dad (and visa versa).

    Family for me is a fluid concept, but I found that geography never really hurt our bonds. When I was living on a godforsaken island in the Pacific, my best friends and “family” were still in my life. Long way of saying geographical distance didn’t really matter in my case. Home wasn’t a place, it was people. And it didn’t really matter where those people were in relation to you.

  4. I know plenty of married couples who think that the single best thing they ever did for their marriage was move at least 300 miles away from the in-laws.

  5. Finally I got my own room when Eve left for college, and while I would like to say I was sad that she left, it would not really be true.

    Ah, yes. On more than one occasion my sisterly nurturing has caused people to flee for their lives.

    Ziff was the nice older sibling. I was the mean one. When God handed out the divine feminine nature to all women, was I on a celestial smoke break, or what?

    (But now I miss my sibs desperately and I’m terrified of ever moving away from Melyngoch. I don’t even know how to begin vetting babysitters.)

  6. I know just how you feel. I have 5 siblings and we are very close, though we are almost all in different states (well, two are in Utah, but Tooele and Moab, so that’s almost different states). When we are together, I often think of how much fun it could be to be closer and do more of the day-to-day things together. But, then after enough time together, I think maybe we all get along better being further apart.

    We work at getting together physically. We have had an email group with extended family for years, but the activity on it has dropped. We communicate some on FB, but some are not on it much. My dad started an extended family reunion every couple of years about 10 years ago and we really enjoy that. Plus, now that we all have kids, they enjoy seeing their cousins, so we make the effort to get together.

    For several years, it was taking care of my mom that kept us close. We have to discuss her care and with which sibling she was going to live next. She passed away last month, so we’ll see how we keep it going in the future, but I think that not having the burden of taking care of Mom will free us up to have more fun together. I have traveled twice to Utah and spent 3 weeks in my brother’s basement with my kids. And, another brother and I will spend a week together on the beach with our families.

  7. Our family is three single siblings and three married with kids and it will probably remain that way. We are somewhat emotionally close.
    One of my single sisters reaches out to me a lot and I love it. I love her and need her too! (although I have my own family) I love to get together with her. As a 40th birthday present to me she gave me a trip to see her which was awesome. I have multiple siblings come to visit me and everyone is amazed because their siblings never come visit if the parents don’t live here. I comment that it is because they are single so they can come (although I’ve also had marrieds come occasionally).
    Another one of my single sisters latched on to my youngest brother’s family and visits them a lot, moves in sometimes, babysits while the parents go on vacation or move, etc.
    As long as you are very committed to being close you can make the distance work for you. Being close geographically can sometimes mean too close for comfort, or you don’t bother getting together, etc.

  8. When I was a sophomore living off-campus at BYU, I lived with a couple of sisters. And when they found out that two of my sisters (Melyngoch and Elbereth) were also living off-campus, and within a mile of us, they asked why weren’t living together. Let’s just say, any combination of the three of us (or the three of us together) living together would’ve been a bad idea.

    Lynnette, I’ve actually wondered the same thing myself, and I’m not really sure either way. However, I do think that if we all manage to live closer together, we’ll still be getting together once a week for Settlers marathons.

  9. I think the church’s emphasis on the nuclear family is sort of befuddling. We talk about the nuclear family as if it’s in opposition to . . . single parents? Gays? Kibbutzim? People marrying their furniture and begetting little Ottomans? I’m not always sure what the threat is exactly. But it’s also in opposition to the extended family, and it seems like a real shame that we let that go in post-industrial society. Some anthropologists have wondered about the evolutionary reasons for menopause and suggested, based on research among hunter-gatherers, that grandmothers have historically played a significant role in childrearing, for example.

  10. My sister and I were often warring with each other … taking turns being the “good” daughter. We didn’t become friends until I left for college. Clearly, a little space was a good thing, then. Now she’s living in SLC, and we get together whenever possible, which is never enough.

    My brothers also did their own fair share of warring. At one point, while sharing a room, they had a rule that only one of them could be inside at a time. They didn’t approach friendliness until the other one got married and started having children. These kids make the holidays and get-togethers infinitely more fun. And recently, my brothers bonded over ultimate fighting. Go figure. At least they are doing it by proxy.

    I wish I could say that Catan has brought my family together. But my one brother is so competitive that it’s now taboo. However, I found out that my 9 year old nephew plays … Cities and Knights, and with the special rules from Das Buch! I’m grooming him to be a cutthroat player!

  11. My extended family is all near by – meaning just one hour for my siblings, my parents, and even my grandmothers and some aunts and uncles. This is tremendously valuable in terms of supporting my children. My parents and siblings provide hands-on care very often, usually both weekend days. My parents always cook a sunday dinner. The relationships with my kids are strong, and the help is so significant to us adults, that even though is is annoying on some levels, overall the situation is very, very hard to consider ending via a move further away.

    I should say that I absolutely hated my parents and sibs until I was an adult. My mom even told me she thought they’d never see me back after 18. Oh well! We’re still not close, I don’t talk much or ever open up, but due to geography and the interests of the kids, life has unfolded in a way where we do spend large amounts of time together. I would be just as well with a weekly phone check-in but I believe this strong grandparenting and aunting is really good for the kids’ growth and besides, we were dealt a hand of particularly complicated kids who need more involved adults than just the two of us parents. One of them needs 1:1 at all times, with somebody who knows all the tricks, the routines, the meds, and thank goodness his favorite person is grandpa! Otherwise his dad and I would have separately run for the hills several year ago!

    ok, enough about me. Kiskilili, have you read “Mothers and Others”? it’s follow up research on the fantastic “Mother nature : mothers infants and natural selection” . But this volume is all about the evolution of infants and non-maternal caregiving. amazing stuff.

  12. I love that book!

    This isn’t exactly related to our discussion. But I was fascinated to read that among titi monkeys and night monkeys the fathers do virtually all of the childcare, and the offspring are more emotionally attached to their fathers.

  13. I agree with you about extended family, Lynnette. It is too bad that we all (mostly) live so far apart because it is so fun when we can get together. Of course, I tend to enjoy it so much that I hadn’t really thought about possible stresses of living closer together. Certainly I would never start to get on anyone’s nerves! 😉 So perhaps I should be happy for how things are. Or maybe it would be nice if we could be a little closer together.

    Oh, but anyway, about extended family, I also enjoy the connections I have to my wife’s family, which is not quite as scattered, but scattered enough from us that we don’t get to see them much. Again, I enjoy seeing them when we get to, but perhaps it’s good we don’t live right down the street. I don’t know. Anyway, though, I do think the focus on nuclear family over extended family in the Church does seem odd given how it seems like a culturally specific development in a specific time. Does it really reflect God’s will, this oddity of this time and culture, that nuclear families are valued over extended ones?

  14. K, I’m glad to meet another fan! Last Christmas, my sister and I both accidentally bought Mothers and Others for each other. If anybody is reading these comments, here is a quick endorsement from Amazon link in #12

    For as long as she’s been a sociobiologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has been playfully dismantling traditional notions of motherhood and gender relations…Hrdy is back with another book, Mothers and Others, and another big idea. She argues that human cooperation is rooted not in war making, as sociobiologists have believed, but in baby making and baby-sitting. Hrdy’s conception of early human society is far different from the classic sociobiological view of a primeval nuclear family, with dad off hunting big game and mom tending the cave and the kids. Instead, Hrdy paints a picture of a cooperative breeding culture in which parenting duties were spread out across a network of friends and relatives. The effect on our development was profound.

    Provocative. [Hrdy] argues that unlike other apes, Homo sapiens could never have evolved if human mothers had been required to raise their offspring on their own. Human infants are too helpless and too expensive in their demands for care and resources. So human females have to line up helpers–sometimes extending beyond their own kin–to raise their young. That requires both males and females to invest heavily in social skills for bargaining with other members of their groups. Hrdy suggests that females in ancestral hunting and gathering groups may have thrived because they were free to be flexible in this way. Female flexibility was reduced when humans established settlements requiring male coalitions to defend them, probably leading to greater control of females by males…The most refreshing aspect of [this] book is the challenge [it] offers to what we thought we already knew.
    –John Odling-Smee (Nature 20090626)


Comments are closed.