BRUNA GOMES | FEATURES
There is a formidable, solid image of the Western family. Little children dream of it residing in their sprawling, multi-storeyed dollhouses: a married couple and 2 to 4 children.
There is a lot of room in the dollhouse for a variety of movements, perhaps the mother and father smoosh faces in the master bedroom, and the tallest child raids the fridge in the kitchen. On and on like this, there are always more rooms than people. More space than needed. The mother is in front of the television and the toddler is in the attic and the father is in the bathroom and the tallest child is in the laundry. And in between, exists the vacant yet junk filled rooms with dust as the only residence. So much empty space and distance between lives. What a dream.
The structure of the nuclear family is fostered as a goal of Western parenting, propelled by the middle to upper-class economy. In this proverbial dollhouse, there is a lot of empty space, but it is there to remain empty: it cannot be filled by smoking uncles or wisecrack grandmothers or rattling cousins. Perhaps a dog will do, if not in a room then at least on the carpet yard.
Western parents strive to isolate their children in the name of independence and authenticity. They pride themselves in letting their kids revel in their own sense of control, offer freedom in the form of late – or even nonexistent! – curfews and customised meals. In many ways, the kids are treated as adults. Of course, independence is an invaluable skill to impart to your child – but when does a child’s independence become a corruption of childhood?
In the community I grew up in on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, my teenage friends were initially granted notes and coins of money from their parents for a school lunch or Saturday mall trip until, gradually, they all got part-time jobs. Once the parents in my community saw their fourteen-year-old children blitzing milkshakes at the local cafe, that was it for them – job done! Parenthood: achieved. No more handouts, no more pockets of rattling coins.
The kids soared into the workplace and valiantly announced they were saving for a car. They paid for their own school lunches and Saturday mall trips, their own haircuts and school uniforms. They eventually bought their cars and drove themselves from one suburb to the next, rushing against the wind with their profound freedom. When seventeen became eighteen, a couple of kids in my class even had to begin paying rent to their parents for living in their house. A hundred bucks a week for sleeping in your childhood bedroom. The nuclear heirloom was inevitably passed on: the shame of being associated with your own parents.
While I cannot begin to imagine the responsibilities, burdens, and joys of parenting, I cannot help but think that parenting a child into independence can quickly become parenting them into isolation.
With a Latin American father, I grew up with different family values to my predominantly Western community. Unlike my friends, I was not trained to reach independence. I was taught to prioritise family time; family – the collective – is everyday life. Many families in Latin America live in their extended, interconnected forms, all living under the same roof or on the same street. Children are not expected to go to sleep before the adults – family time in the evening is critical.
I have a memory, which often bewilders me with concern for my twelve-year-old self, of my family taking my sister and me to a bar in São Paulo around midnight. This would almost be impossible in Sydney, as nighttime is reserved for independent, free adult time. In Brazil, there is no such distinction: nighttime is for a reunion after a day of work, for everyone. While this Latin American value of family is often labelled as “loyalty,” it can much more simply be described as “connection.”
In Western families, the extended family is an accessory at worst, a holiday at best. For the lucky few, the extended family is a next-door neighbour. The nuclear family is a private, convenient space that disqualifies the responsibility of familial obligation. What capitalism has so fabulously advertised as the nuclear family is, if we take a step back to see the bigger picture, actually a fragmented family. It is unsupported by the web of generations that many families in Latin America and elsewhere proudly lean on.
In retaliation to capitalism’s insistence on hyper-individualism and its perpetuation of hustle culture and productivity, we as a society need to allow Western parents to feel a sense of pride in building a supportive web of people around them. We should not be obliged to live harmoniously with our blood relatives – lineage is often an archaic and colonial ideology, especially in the way of pedigree and political inter-marriage – but there are certainly people we can choose to be in our family, to re-centralise the idea of connection and collective in our daily lives.
The structure of Western parenting is almost always not a design of the parents themselves, but a financial, cultural, and social ideal. The architecture of Western parenting – the dollhouse – does not have to be demolished, just simply re-purposed.
Fill the rooms with multiple barbie dolls. Keep the doors open at night.
If we consider an atom, it is incomplete if it is to be only represented by its nucleus. Us atoms need our electrons, our relatives, our people.
It is what gives us electricity, magnetism, chemistry.
It is what brings us to life.