A significant majority both on the right and the left believe in the importance of family in the life of all Americans but especially in the life of children. Those on the right may be more vocal about that and put forward a different definition on the family than that offered on the left. But all value the family as they understand it.
But the word “family” of course refers to a wide range of relationships. My grandfather remained a bachelor until age 50, when he returned to his hometown and married a schoolteacher. With her he had two children but for the rest continued his life as before. He spent his days at the chess club or in the library where he read history voraciously. His role in the family was benign but distant. His wife no longer needed to teach schoolchildren. Instead she was now in charge of the household, supervising a cook, and two maids, and the children’s nanny.
For my grandparents, family was a sexual and economic arrangement. My grandfather supported an affluent bourgeois household. When necessary he helped one or the other of his five brothers or their children. Family imposes obligations or allows one to ask for help. The permissions or obligations extended only to persons of the same ancestry.
In other families intimacy is more central than the obligations of mutual aid. In different settings intimacy has different meanings. Often shared work is at the heart of it. Families run a farm together or a business in the city. A father sells cars or installs electrical networks. As the business expands, sons and daughters join the firm as well as cousins and nephews. Being together almost daily, having many joined interests and concerns that need discussing, family members get to know each other intimately and learn to live well together.
My parents understood family intimacy to mean that some matters would only be talked about within the family. Sharing secrets with outsiders was a serious breach of family loyalty. Family intimacy often means that members, very familiar with one another, find other family members when they need comfort or advice or when they need help to think through difficult decisions. Family members may help each other raise their children. There have been, and still are, cultures where teens live with relatives to learn how to live a decent life and perhaps to learn a trade. Families care for each other's children. They also care for the common ancestors when they get frail in old age. Families know each other's history intimately. They use the lives of their relatives as models to imitate or perhaps as lessons of what to avoid doing.
It is interesting but quite distressing to see how family of the second type is becoming progressively more rare. This became very obvious to me on a recent trip to Latin America. In times of economic crisis, significant numbers of mostly younger people emigrate in order to find a livelihood outside their own country. Families that have lived in close proximity for generations are now scattered widely over the globe. Oceans separate family members. They may return for extended visits every few years. But they have now made lives for themselves in other countries. They have close friends unknown to their family; some of them may well be substitute families. The intimacy that close and almost daily contact had bred before is no longer there. Family members become estranged from each other. Family relations become much more distant. The importance of the family slowly fades. The emigrants’ children may speak a different language and have difficulties communicating with their grandparents when they return to Latin America.
Instead of celebrating graduations, weddings and childbirth together, families are in touch on social media and exchange photos on Instagram. The previous intimacy bred in frequent and extended contacts is no longer available. People keep track of each other. Grandparents have pictures of grandchildren but do not know them as they would have before when they were in and out of their house almost daily. The meaning of family is altered irretrievably. The loud insistence on the value of the family is a thinly veiled lament over its disappearance (when it is not an attack on LGBQT persons).
Nor are these phenomena limited to the developing world where migrants try to escape poverty and political turmoil, often sponsored by some US government agency. Few families remain in place in our country. Children often live at great distances from their parents. They escape the country and smaller towns to live in big cities that are “cool”--where is a lot going on. Grandchildren rarely see their grandparents. Grandparents are not involved in the growth and development of their grand children. Text and email replace this family intimacy. Images take place of living presence.
Family values are progressively more imagined than real. In politics they become a stick to beat those who live marginal lives or offend celibate men. In our social life, family values are disappearing mourned by denial.