Glorifying The Myth of the Happy Family

Have you ever thought that our view of family life is overly romanticized? 

In a New York Times blog about the problems and joys of caring for elderly parents, the writer Paula Span compares people who take care of their parents and people who take care of their children, noting that:  "We don’t see supermarket magazines featuring photos of celebrities with aging parents in tow."  In other words, taking care of babies is glamorized; taking care of elders is ... not glamorized.  

"Elder care is invisible," the writer says. The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is even deeper than the question of whether we treat young and old alike. It is in the assumptions underlying both child care and elder care. It is in the way we overburden families with individual responsibility for important jobs that our social institutions should help us handle but do not.

When we wrap that unlovely thought inside the lovely phrase "family values,"  it sounds like a virtue. But romanticizing family life unrealistically won't make it so. It may just make a serious problem invisible.

And as long as the real problem remains unspoken, we leave each individual who grapples, unsuccessfully, with overwhelming family responsibilities to feel that he or she, alone, is a failure.  That's sad.  It contributes to the isolation felt by a growing number of people who accuse our culture of rewarding its already-privileged members while abandoning those who are truly in need.  We could use new laws providing for parental leave, day care, health care along the models that have proven successful in other countries.

If we're not going to do that, then I propose that we stop glorifying the myth of the happy family. Let's start by changing that name. Instead of using the word "family" to describe the relationships that connect us by blood or marriage, how about calling them "Small Powerless Groups That Serve As Dumping Grounds For Vital Social Functions Without Any Recognition Or Assistance From Uncaring Social Leaders."  It's catchy, right?