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Family Seeks Campatible Family

I have this idyllic vision of one part of my childhood that I’m hesitant to give up. The way I remember it, my family had a good number of something I’ve been searching for: compatible families. These are the families where the women get along, the men get along (assuming there are men involved), and the children get along. In other words, you can invite them over and no one is left needing to be entertained, the men don’t go home grumbling about having to spend time with someone they have nothing to say to, the children don’t end up hiding behind the couch. You know what I’m talking about, right?
I grew up in a pretty small Midwestern town which had a very insular population. My dad was employed at The Big Company, and my mom largely stayed home to take care of the five of us (though, being my mother, she did have lots of other interests). They made deep, long-lasting friendships there, and though my parents live in California now, they still keep in touch with their old friends and even visit each other. I love going through their mail around holiday time. They get cards from families I remember with photos of the parents (aging but recognizable), their children (impossibly grown up), and grandchildren.
For being in such an out-of-the-way place, the women my mom knew were smart, artsy, and fun to be with. My mother had given up her scientist training for raising children and teaching piano, and she and her friends kept themselves constantly busy with painting, weaving, musical groups, church duties, food co-ops — so many things that they wouldn’t have been able to do if they’d had jobs.
Like my dad, most of the men worked at The Big Company or in a necessary job that supported it, like medicine. I never paid much attention to the men or what they talked about, but I remember them being there when we had summer barbecues, toboggan parties, or weekends away at someone’s cottage.
There always seemed to be another family available for whatever activity we had planned. And if the kids didn’t get along, well, that was just life. I had a few awkward friendships with daughters of my mother’s friends, girls who didn’t go to my school. It was actually easier, in a way, that I saw them only in forced situations. We didn’t have to sustain the friendship on our own.
Living in California in the 21st century is a whole different experience. It seems so incredibly difficult to get families together – we all have such complicated schedules. And then, to find a family that fits with us: our kids don’t refuse to play with each other, the men don’t sit there trying to find something to say while the women get along fabulously, the children don’t turn out to be addicted to video games that we don’t allow in the house, and on and on.
How did this get to be so complicated? And what did my parents do right that we’re missing? My mother has revealed to me, though I thought that it was all easy for them, that in fact, they had similar problems. I have found out, now that I’m an adult, which husbands annoy my mom, which wives talk constantly about themselves so that conversation is stifled, which husbands just want to watch TV and drink beer.
The thing my parents did have was a lack of choices. A small town in the Midwest in the 60s and 70s didn’t offer a lot of freedom. They had to get along, and they would have gone crazy if they’d been too picky about their friends. Not only that, but they and their friends grew up together, having married, unlike us, at the beginning of their adulthood rather than well into it. They had their kids first…then figured out whether or not they wanted to be parents, and HOW to be parents. The men largely had careers, but the women ended up finding them in unexpected places, like my mother’s migration from chemist to historian.
My husband and I both had other serious relationships before we married, and we had children well after we’d come into adulthood. We chose to live somewhere smaller than I’d chosen as a single person, but still diverse enough to offer more than a small, isolated town. We’ve chosen not to send our kids to a neighborhood school, which isolates us further from the small-town conveniences my parents had. I’m happy with my kids’ schools, with the wonderful house we live in (bought at bargain prices long ago when we were childless!), and the friends we have, separately and together.
Still, despite the fact that I’m happy about our choices, I’m jealous of people I know who at least have been able to fit their family with one other. I still think back to when I was a kid and how my parents seemed to find it so easy to stick us kids in a room, or send us out into the woods to play, and go on with their adult lives. OK, so now I know it wasn’t so easy. But small town life did have some benefits which came with obvious costs. Though I’m not ready to trade in my life for my mom’s, I do realize that we’ve lost something, or at least made it that much harder to find.

Posted in Parenting.

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