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Families

PDF It was probably my increasing interest in and meditations on family that lead me to pick up Families.Published in 1978, the book is a result of the author interviewing and spending time with something like 200 “family units” as a People magazine article of the time called them.I believe Howard’s intent was to discover what constitutes family and whether or not the family is disappearing.I have to say, it doesn’t take a book or time spent with 200 “family units” to determine that family isn’t going away, regardless of your definition of “family.”As to what constitutes “family,” well…

To me, this book is an exercise in the obvious.Maybe that wasn’t the case in 1978.I tend to think it was, though.I tend to believe the questions raised in this book have been raised a million times before over the last few thousand years.I’m not trying to be arbitrarily negative, but we all know our family is our family and we understand the concept that our circle of friends constitutes a kind of family, perhaps our co-workers, perhaps the people on our sports team or the members of our band or whatever.But Families is full of circular, often heavy handed analysis of families and what makes them such.When it feels like it’s trying to be deep, when it feels like it’s trying to be whimsical, it only succeeds at trying.The word "clumsy" came to mind fairly often.

I won’t go so far as to say the examples in Families are stereotypical but, if you’ve read a lot of books or watched a lot of TV or movies, you’ve seen all the families detailed in this book.The southern African American family, the lesbians with a kid family, the big Greek family, the big religious family, the hippy/commune/cult family and so on.They’re not all here, every example of family possible, but you get the point.

That would all be lovely and swell except the writing just isn’t that engaging, nor are there great revelations to be gleaned from this book.Well, at least not for me.Anyone looking for reassurance that “family is not dead,” which seems to be part of the selling point of this book, or is at least referred to in the cursive script blurb on the cover, isn’t going to take away a whole lot, either.The idea that the “concept of family is changing” is a massive conceit.Family has always, always been a loose term, regardless of the laws or social mores of any given time.

So, ultimately, the purpose of this book becomes clear through process of elimination.This is the author’s attempt to figure out what family means to her and you’re welcome to come along for the ride.Unfortunately, as I said, the ride isn’t that exciting, nor is it very fulfilling.

I was left to take some interesting points from this rambling, unfocused, journey because that was the best I could get out of it.One concept that sparked my interest was, as Howard puts it on page four, “The more education you have, the smaller family you are likely to have.”This is echoed by an interviewee on page 194, who states, “It gets into social Darwinism: the scary thing is that the people most opposed to having kids seem to be the smartest ones.”True.I mean, you can interpret that however you wish.I lean towards, “Smart people know better,” but that’s my take.It’s food for thought, at any rate.

“Fathers no longer have children in order to pass their skills along; by the time most children grow up, their father’s skills are obsolete.”That’s an interesting one.Not even just for specifically what it says, but also for what it implies and how much further along that phenomenon is now, in 2012, than it was in 1978.Fathers rarely have children to provide them with a cheap work force anymore but that was another good reason to breed back in the day.I read an article that one country in South America has reduced the birth rate because women had taken charge of their reproductive systems and, wanting better lives, realized more children meant more poverty.For many, children mean doing without, a greater risk of financial desolation and lower standards of living.

This statement from an interviewee about Mormons was prescient: “Mormons are very happy people because they know what they’re doing and where they’re going.”That is very true of Mormons but it’s also just a basic, general truth.The less soul searching and decision making you involve yourself with, the less turmoil and heartache you’ll have to contend with.Whether that’s for better or for worse is, I suppose, up to the individual.

My favorite quote was in reference to an interviewee’s grandmother, who “possessed in large degree the old Puritan admiration for rectitude, high courage and a contempt for small human meanness.”I don’t know how Puritan that is, but I would have gotten along with that lady like a house on fire.

Ultimately, to get anything out of this book, I had to put aside and, in come cases, cut out Howard’s personal journey.As one of those “Four out of ten children born in the 1970’s” who will “spend time in single parent families, of which 90% are headed by women,” I guess I saw early on that “family” was what you made it.This rambling book is what you make it, too, which may be more effort than it’s worth.

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