Betty Duffy

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Public Life of the Family

A couple weeks ago, my husband and I had an argument. Things escalated, yadda, yadda, and before we knew it, three days of monosyllabic conversation sans eye contact had ensued.

Then the phone rang. It was my friend Pedge inviting us over to play cards with her and her husband. I agreed, procured a babysitter, and said to my husband, “Do you want to make up so we can go play Euchre?”

Naturally, the fight could not go on. What merit is there in duking it out in the foxhole when you could have a babysitter for the kids, a few beers, and friends (or are we the only ones so desperate for a social life that we will forget what inspired three days of conflict for an invitation to play cards?)?

I’m concerned about this article by Susan McWilliams that discusses how public consumption of beer has diminished, while private consumption of both alchohol and bottled water has increased. She suggests this trend means that people no longer remove from their homes to engage in civic discourse (hence they no longer need social lubricants).

She rightly points out that our politics have suffered from indifference to the public sphere, but I think likewise, the family suffers from its insularity. Not saying that the family requires beer in order to survive, but families must look outward, and be in relationship with other families for the health of marriages and their children.

Being in public together helps spouses to fall in love with one another again, to be allies in a foreign land. Many conflicts that seem “worth it” when there’s nothing better to do, pale in comparison to a party (and my husband no longer feels hijacked into being my one-man cocktail party).

For the first five years of our marriage, my husband and I had various in-laws living with us. Wherever we found room, in the attic, the basement, a spare bedroom, we housed in-laws and siblings while they worked temporary jobs, paid off debts, awaited their upcoming nuptials, etc. We decided before we got married that we always wanted to have an open door, that we would never turn people away, or say that it wasn’t a good time for their visit.

Those years were full of good times. There was always a crowd gathered on our front porch in the evening, having drinks and arguments, engaging in conversation. And believe it or not, we studied for those conversations, read books and the news, etc so that we'd know what we were talking about. I remember one night, falling asleep and thinking "These are the glory days." I knew it wouldn't last--that people would move on and start their own families and our home would cease to be the hub of activity.

When I became pregnant with our fourth child in four years, I began to lose patience with the fact that Uncle Bonehead left cigarette butts in our front yard and Uncle Snoodle always finished off our milk requiring me to take my children on another trip to the grocery. I started calculating the added cost to our grocery bill when unexpected guests dropped in at dinner time. I totaled up the amount of rent we could have charged. My husband and I had to have our arguments in whispered voices. I wanted to cut loose, and walk from my bedroom to the bathroom with no clothes on. I wanted to lay my pregnant body down on the couch and ignore my kids without anyone thinking less of me. I wanted my "right to privacy" (notice how many “I’s” there are in this paragraph).

So I kicked out the last remaining sibling in our basement (Uncle Snoodle to my kids), and my husband and I moved out of town. Of course there were other considerations for this move, like having a yard and a garden, giving our growing family more space, getting away from less savory elements of urban life. But I also felt unable, at the time, to keep our door open.

In hindsight, I see that my negativity was probably due to the cyclical fatigue of recurrent babymaking rather than the public life. If I had invested my energy in asking for help rather than brooding, I might have made a better go of it, and wouldn't now bemoan my loneliness so often. I want everyone to come back, move in, be here with me--though as expected they have all moved on to their own marriages and lives.

My aunt is fond of saying that "independence is obnoxious." Having dependence on others or living in community is how people rightly find their place and vocation in life. In community we serve others. In community we must discipline ourselves. In community we learn to forgive others’ faults so we can move on to brighter horizons like card games with friends.

It is a small price to pay to get dressed before you leave your room. And keeping arguments at a low pitch is good for everyone. No one wants to be the yelling family on the block, the one that slams doors, and peels out of the driveway at all hours of the night. "Keep your voice down. Don’t yell at the children or the neighbors might hear." And so the public life protects children and marriages in roundabout ways, because we care about what people think, and we're motivated by engaging with other people.


Emily said...

Well, we are the loud house on the block. More than once I have been embarrassed by looking out the front door while yelling at a kid and seeing a neighbor peering in. But I figure since we're already an odd lot, we might as well maintain the distinction. That said, it is a real sorrow to me that my extended family doesn't come over for a beer more often. What's 11 hrs in the car compared to a weekend of fun?

Jus said...

It has not yet been long enough here since the rotating perma-guests moved out to be waxing nostalgic but I do feel that more time out with other couples would be a really great way to see our family in a new light.......

Speaking of spending time with others......

Pedge said...

I connect with this post on so many levels, while mom was here waiting for Dick to come home was never as hard as it is now. It was easier to recognize the beauty of my vocation in light of the familial presence. It's weird how I somehow feel better seeing my name in your post, as if I matter more because you mentioned my in cyberspace. I'm only saying that to affirm that we do all need community and we seem to be on this eternal search to see if we matter, and it seems harder to realize you matter when you are all alone. Then again, I'm not alone really. .there are four little people here who should make it obvious I matter. Somehow that relates to the theme of the post, but I can't articulate it now and baby needs mom. . .that means I'll move to the phone! pathetic, huh

jen said...

No, this wasn't it. (it's great by the way all the same.) The one I am thinking of was when you talked about (paraphrasing of course) lack of community as it relates to church or ??? something like that. it's been awhile - maybe four months??? i'll keep searching the search box. I am positive it was you. I always knew I would link to the post at some point. It's just taken me a long time. (as most things.)

Allison Welch said...

I don't admit this often because it sounds so bizarre, but our family of four lives in to a 750 sq. ft. apartment in the city during the week (it's a long story...). It was a HUGE adjustment moving from 2.5 acres in the country (where my boys can pee outside and we can yell at each other to our hearts content) to having neighbors so close and at every angle (picture the Brady Bunch squares!) No they are not biological family, but we have had to learn to live with them just the same. Learning not to yell has definitely been one of the biggest blessings of living in so much togetherness. And living in the city and exposing our kids to a less "homogeneous" (realtor's word) cross section of humanity has made us more aware and compassionate. Three cheers for "The Public Life of the Family"!

Kyle said...

For some reason my wife and I just found this post. It coincides nicely with one of our New Year's resolutions. We're both private and rather introverted people, and our goal is "get out" more this year. Glad to hear that it might have a positive impact on our family life, too.

Anonymous said...

After one of the worst disagreements of our marriage, the kind that could have been the beginning of the end of it, my husband and I forced ourselves to go for a walk around the shops near our house, and from there to an evening engagement with some newish friends. (I suppose it could have turned into a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" type of night, but it didn't.) Getting out of the house and away from our conflict for those few hours (especially presenting ourselves as a married couple to a pair of new friends) helped us re-center away from the things that had been said.