Blogs > Cliopatria > Three (Middle Class) Americas

Jul 18, 2004 6:03 am

Three (Middle Class) Americas

It isn't true, as Leo Tolstoy said, that"All happy families are alike." Our recent travels were family visits, in three stages, and the contrasts between the three families were quite remarkable: Local, Blended/Chosen, Scattered.

Our first stop was St. Louis, where my wife's family is centered. Both her brothers' (financial professionals) families live in, more or less, the same neighborhood that they grew up in, though both also spent time elsewhere in college and after. Her parents live in a farmhouse in southeast Kansas, a few miles from the town that they grew up in, and visit St. Louis at least monthly, spending time with their children, grandkids and friends; coming up to see us during our visit was unusual only in that we were there. My father-in-law worked for the military, and now is semi-retired, doing similar work on a contract basis. My mother-in-law, after many years out of the job market, works as a church secretary, though she also has worked as a seamstress and a teacher's aide. My sisters-in-law work, too: dental office administration and elementary school social worker. Everyone in our generation is college-educated, with a few post-graduate degrees (from St. Louis institutions) thrown in. Two of the three marriages involved childhood sweethearts; the other started as a college relationship; all the in-laws live in St. Louis; no divorces. Lutherans, mostly, and also mostly Republicans.

Our next stop was Kansas City, where my son's godmothers live. Both are teachers near retirement (one has worked for the same school district for three decades, the other in adult education as long as I've known her), and they've been together over two decades. They recently moved, but only a few miles. One has children from a previous marriage, and the grandchildren (who live in an inventive but stable three-parent lesbian family) are loved by both; the two of them have also educated and mentored a wide variety of people some of whom, like my wife, consider them surrogate or additional parents in some form or another: our son is not their only godchild. Quakers, they've been active in a wide variety of peace and social justice movements and cultural organizations.

The last stage was in Maryland, where my NY-born parents live. My father is retiring this year from the defense contractor he's worked at for 35+ years; my mother, who dropped out of the job market until her youngest was in high school, worked as a magazine editor and writer/researcher and is now doing pretty well as a freelance writer/editor. My aunts -- a librarian, a social studies teacher and a nutritionist -- live in the Northeast, where they have lived their entire lives. We live in Hawai'i, my brother is doing a post-doc in London; my cousins live in Boston (moving to New Mexico shortly), NY (going to Yale shortly), Michigan (graduate school) and New Jersey (not going anywhere anytime soon, but she's the youngest), and their career paths currently include physical therapy assistant, web designer, engineer, and Jewish social agency junior executive. My surviving grandfather splits his time between the Long Island home and the Florida condo (which belonged to my other grandparents before they passed away). The last time my mother's side of the family got together like this was my grandmother's funeral a few years back, but it used to be an annual Thanksgiving tradition. Everyone in my parents' generation is college educated (my mother is the only one without a post-graduate degree of some sort), as is almost my entire generation. Both my Ph.D. brother and I met and married our spouses in graduate school; none of the other cousins are married yet; two divorces, both by the same person, but no blending. Jewish, mostly, including several in-marriage converts, and Democrats.

The three families have so little in common, except that they are our families. There are a few things, though, which I've noticed. There's lots of two-income families.... actually, all of them. There are ways in which these families fit certain cultural stereotypes -- highly educated, mobile Jews; stable midwestern Lutherans; social justice Quakers; dark and micro-brew beer v. lite beer (and home-brew) v. wine. There are lots of ways in which these people defy stereotypes, too: for example, the religious intermarriages in both families have mostly involved in-marriage, rather than conversion away from the family faith (the exception being the marriage which binds the families together, which is both an in- and out-marriage). As my wife notes, there are hardly any divorces (and no"why are they still married?" couples, either), which may explain the positive outlook with which we approach our tenth anniversary: Our wedding was on my grandparents' fifty-first anniversary, one of the sweetest things about a sweet day. She also noted that our parents are more similar to each other: the differences really come out in our generation.

What does it mean? I don't know. I'm sure these aren't the only three functional modes, but the fact that we have all of them in our family suggests that"preserving the American family" may be more complicated than it's proponents believe. Or, as my wife noted, perhaps it'll be easier, as it's a pretty robust institution to begin with.

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Hugo Schwyzer - 7/19/2004

Well, Jonathan, the survival of the American family is assured if all husbands and fathers are as devoted as you seem to be. Thanks for sharing this.