Leave It To Beaver taught us that family was all about Mom, Dad and the kids. But my in-laws have shown me an older model of family life that works surprisingly well in the 21st century.
I grew up in a more or less nuclear family. It was just the three of us — Mom, Dad and myself — for most of my childhood. This worked out well for us largely because my parents retired early in my childhood so there was always someone at home. With nearly all our relatives living in other states, if my parents weren’t caring for me, I was at school, camp or some other organized activity. I had only a vague idea of what it meant to be a “latch-key kid,” living with two working parents and arriving home to an empty house.
When I married and had a son of my own, the situation was very different. My wife, who grew up in Southeast Asia, came from a very different model of parenting. As one of six siblings, she not only had her parents, but also older brothers and sisters to care for her. As she got older, she quickly took on duties around the house. By the time she was in high school she was the primary cook for the family.
Regardless of culture, small children need around the clock care. But who gives the care depends greatly on the social context. Given the limitations of the two income, nuclear family, the go-to solution is some form of daycare, though the costs can all but negate the value of the second income. Occasionally dropping the second income makes sense and one parent stays home full time.
My wife’s family, on the other hand, have a completely different approach. Children are cared for by the extended family: grandparents, in-laws, and so on. I am tremendously grateful to my mother-in-law and father-in-law for caring for my son and giving my wife and me the space to recover from parenting’s rigors on a regular basis. Yet as much as relatives are highly trusted and heavily utilized, commercial solutions are frowned upon. My wife has no experience with non-kin babysitters and no trust for them. Only when my son was older did we put him in daycare to give him more opportunities to socialize.
The largest difference between my own childhood and my son’s isn’t how children are cared for within the family, but how children move fluidly between families. It’s perfectly normal for my son to be at his grandparent’s house over the weekend, or perhaps an aunt’s house. And his aunt has children of her own to keep him company. Some weekends they’re all over at my house. The kids get to socialize and at the same time the adults get a chance to catch up on shopping or rest.
If the western model of the nuclear family has the parents as the nucleus of the atom with the children orbiting nearby as metaphorical electrons, then my experience with my wife’s family is more of a “metallic family.” In chemistry, we learn that metals are those materials where electrons are not held exclusively by their nuclei, but circulate freely among them.
What’s even more unique is this child-sharing arrangement has no time limit. Sometimes children are away from their parents for an afternoon or a weekend. But the visits could just as easily go on for a summer or even multiple years. One of my nieces grew up mostly with her grandparents, then returned to her parents and eventually came to live in my house. During her childhood, my own wife spent significant time away from her parents. Some of my American friends were skeptical of such arrangements, but it has worked out well for all of us.
For those of us used to the nuclear family, it’s hard not to worry about issues of attachment and abandonment. In my own experience, I haven’t found it to be a tremendous problem. Whether my in-laws understand attachment theory or not, care is taken in the early years to avoid long-term exchanges if at all possible. There have been cases where a child will bond to someone in the family other than the biological parents. This is seen as not so unusual and tends to work out just fine as long as there is consistency and there is no dishonor towards parents of such a child.
One final difference I see in my wife’s family is the way that children are expected to entertain each other, care for one another, and be mutually reliant on one another at a relatively early age. The screen has become the de facto child entertainment device for kids who can’t make it to sports or a scheduled play date. But we know a family with four children ranging from childhood to late adolescence who play together, eat together, get along amazingly well, and can all but take care of themselves. My son can insert himself into their midst as a fifth member almost effortlessly. I’ve taken to calling them the “free-roaming herd” and while there are always adults nearby, I feel confident the five of them could manage themselves and a household nearly indefinitely without outside intervention.
There’s a proverb popularized by Hillary Clinton that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Western society, with its greater mobility and smaller family size seems to have gone in the opposite direction, spreading couples far from their families of origin, often completely cut off from help from their kin. I’m glad that my wife has her family close at hand. I am relieved to know that our family has other families nearby and that we can offer and receive support, on a daily basis, in ways large and small. I wish that as a culture, we could somehow recover the sense of children being cared for by an entire village and not just by Mom and Dad.