06. March 2020 · Comments Off on Going nuclear over David Brooks · Categories: Olio

Many years ago I was at the funeral of a brother-in-law who died young of cancer. My mother, not related by blood or marriage, wanted to be at the funeral and drove ninety miles to the cemetery. As we stood around the grave, my mother stared at my late brother-in-law’s younger brothers. I knew what she was doing . She was looking to see if they were wearing wedding rings. She was examining them for their overall health. Her gaze never veered from those two young men. “This isn’t Poland,” I said to my mother. That’s all I had to say. She then knew that I knew what she was thinking.

“What would be so wrong?” she asked me in Yiddish.

“It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s that it won’t happen here,” I said. My mom seemed satisfied with this answer, but I could tell she was satisfied in the sense that she thought Americans were stupid and were never capable of doing the right and proper thing.

After the funeral, my wife asked what my exchange with my mom was about. “She wants one of your sisters’ brother-in-laws to marry your sister,” I said.

“You’re kidding,” my wife said.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “That’s how it was done in Poland. She can’t imagine why it shouldn’t be done here. Your sister has a baby. Someone needs to take care of that baby, be a father. Who would be better than one of those two?”

“That’s ridiculous,” my wife said. “And you agree with her?”

“In theory, she has a point,” I said. My wife laughed. I think she thought that I was joking.

It turned out that my brother-in-law had a little bit of the old world in him. He didn’t make one of his brothers promise to marry my sister-in-law, but he did make one of his brothers promise that he would watch over his child like she was his own. That’s what he indeed did do. That’s what families do. It’s why they thrive.

About a month ago, I put my family tree together. I got back to about 1820 or so before I lost track. The tree starts out in Poland on both sides of the family. It now includes people in Argentina, America, Israel and even Germany (some young ones have improbably moved back to Europe). I know many of the families in that tree and know enough stories about them and their long gone parents and grandparents to fill a book (which I wrote for my daughter and is strictly for family reading). These people survived cholera, typhoid, heart attacks, cancer, gulags, the Dirty War, the Holocaust, the Israeli War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. Somehow these families (mostly) grew and thrived. The latest generation has some divorces. Such is modern life. But still these families thrive.

Recently I read a “provocative” article in The Atlantic written by David Brooks entitled The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. When I look at my family tree in the context of that article, I think, “There’s no mistake here. This is a complete success. Mr. Brooks is a fool.”

I think of my marriage. Where would I be without it? Who would I love and grow old with? I think of my parents’ marriage. I heard the word divorce in Yiddish said by my mother exactly once. It was an idle threat. Those two were joined at the hip. I think of my in-laws’ marriage. They’ve been joined at the hip for over 65 years. Where is the mistake in any of this?

I looked up Mr. Brooks online and found out he got divorced and married some ridiculously young thing. Aha! Mr. Brooks was projecting and being ridiculously inductive in his article. Just because his own nuclear family was a mistake doesn’t mean that all nuclear families are mistakes.

In his article, Mr. Brooks has some data that “shows” nuclear families are a mistake. According to him, the nuclear family was never very good except for a brief heyday after WWII. Again I think about my family tree. According to Mr. Brooks, my great, great, great, great, grandfather, Rabbi Herschel Rojstaczer, had a lousy marriage in Volodymyr Volynsky. Who knew? Mr. Brooks, to be fair, does equivocate. He states that back in the old days, nuclear families were good because they were big and were like corporations. You needed a big family to run your farm. Ahem. There have been no farmers in my family. We’ve been city folk. Tradesmen, small time merchants and the rare rabbi. I guess according to Mr. Brooks my ancestors must have all been miserable.

According to Mr. Brooks, nuclear families are only working for the wealthy nowadays. Last fall, I went back to my childhood neighborhood, which was never the best and is now a step down from where it was when I was a kid. I talked to the man who owns the house next to the one I grew up in. He was putting away stuff from his daughter’s wedding from the night before. He’d raised his children in that house and had lived in it for thirty years. He was glowing while talking about those years to me. Maybe I should write to him today and tell him his nuclear family must suck because Mr. Brooks told me it did. Maybe I should write a letter to every family on that block and tell them their nuclear families suck. I know at least one of those people just might write me back. He’s the brother of a childhood friend. He lives in the same house he grew up in and lives there with his wife. He just might write to tell me to eff off.

Yes, there are stresses on today’s nuclear families that didn’t exist forty years ago. Most of those are related to money. The brother of the childhood friend in my neighborhood is making half of what his dad made back in the day. Just about everybody in skilled construction, which is the trade I grew up around, makes about half of what their fathers made in today’s dollars. Mr. Brooks barely talks about that in his article. He’s a conservative and doesn’t want to give the working class honest wages for a day’s work. He’d rather just blow up nuclear families. But I’d love to run a experiment where we erase forty years of suppressed wages in America and double everyone’s salary. Do you think nuclear families would work better than they do now? That’s a rhetorical question.

It’s strange that a conservative is against an institution so old that evidence for its existence is found in archaeological digs. What’s stranger is that what Mr. Brooks is proposing, blowing up the nuclear family, is flat out impossible. We have no alternative method to raise children at the scale required.

Mr. Brooks talks about his love of his extended-family-like “forged family,” a local group not related to him by blood or marriage. These kinds of relationships are all well and good, but they are relationships by choice. You like the people you’re around. You stick with them. But what happens when you decide you don’t like the people you’re around anymore? Or they don’t like you? There is nothing to keep you bonded. Pfft. You’re alone.

One of the essential aspects of real extended families is that, in fact, you don’t like everyone in them. There are people in my own extended family that I would do my best to avoid if they weren’t related to me. But they are related so I suck it up and spend time with them. I’ve even grown to love some of the very people I wouldn’t have been able to stomach had they not been related. Learning how to get along with (and even fall in love with) people who aren’t like you emotionally or intellectually is a skill you aren’t going to learn easily except in forced group relationships. Living in an extended family is a central way we learn that being annoyed or worse with someone else’s behavior isn’t the end of the world. You learn compassion, patience and resilience.

There are, indeed, many nuclear families that fail. I don’t wish to make light of those failures or accuse the wives and husbands in those marriages of being irresponsible or wrongheaded (except for maybe Mr. Brooks). There are tens of millions of people actively engaged in relationships that work well, provide emotional strength, and have no relation to the nuclear family. I wish them nothing but joy. But for most of us, nuclear families are an integral part of our happiness. We don’t need a better way to raise families, Mr. Brooks. We just need to give them the wages the adults in those families earned forty years ago.

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