The many faces of family
I remember my cousins as a big part of my growing up.
They feature in many of my favourite childhood memories. I remember them coming over to spend a week or four with us. I remember how my brothers and I would ask our parents if they’d be in Akure when were going there for Christmas. One of them, a gifted storyteller, holding us captive with her tales of adventure: we knew she was making them up, but they were so fun! (She went on to be a journalist.) Another spent many months with us after she finished school and was looking for work, and remained with us a good while after.
Those are just the ones who lived with us. I too did my time staying with other family: an uncle here, an aunt there.
And by family, I mean just that: family. Not nuclear or extended, just family. For us family is a wide word.
I learned very early about nuclear and extended family, of course—I’m not sure when exactly but I remember it was from school and I understood it clearly by Primary 3. But I also remember my (actual) uncle introducing me as his brother. My cousins and I for our part referred to one another as brothers and sisters. As we grew older, we did start referring to ourselves as cousins, in a misguided effort to be more “precise” in our language for one another.
It wasn’t until my adulthood that I realised we were right the first time: the nuclear family is a Western invention, and a recent one at that.
The first known use of the term was in 1924. The idea itself, of family being restricted to parents and children, existed before that, going back to after the Industrial Age. But it was not a thing in much of the world for most of human history. Not even in Europe and certainly not in non-Protestant Europe, where to this day large families remain a fact of life for many. Remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
I had cause to think a lot about all this recently, listening to two different friends express their guilt about how well they were parenting and feeling like they weren’t enough for their children. They both felt like they were needing too much support.
But…what if that’s the point? What if the problem was really their belief that they needed to be enough?
One of my favourite concepts in psychology is that of the “good enough parent” by English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He was concerned about the growing pressure on parents and advocated that they just needed to be good enough. In fact he went so far as to suggest that attempting to be perfect only sets children up to fall that much harder when parents inevitably prove fallible. For him, it was enough for parents to be good enough.
The problem, of course, is that most parents, like my friends, don’t even feel good enough. Sure, some of that is just the feeling of imposter syndrome we all face in anything we care about. But a good chunk of it is rooted in the same individualism that’s made nuclear families such a feature of modern life.
And just like we’ve come to think of personal identity as something we go off by ourselves to find, we’ve come to think of raising children well as something two people should be able to do by themselves. Something that, until very recently in human history, was a communal effort—the proverbial village raising the child.
That said, it might well be argued that the village still raised the child—only now it’s the global village.
Where “family” for me was my cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents and countless others whose relation to me wasn’t even clear, for today’s children it might well be the entire planet. To be clear, that has its value: on the internet and social media, kids everywhere can potentially find community and belonging no matter how weird or misfit they feel.
I’m certainly not idealising family, which is often the first place children experience trauma and being broken. It takes a village to abuse a child too, after all: the community a child trusts often betrays that trust, as too many have found out too painfully.
And yet, for the parents who worry and beat themselves up for not being good enough, patient enough, kind enough—just not being enough—it may be helpful to see that maybe they never really needed to be enough. I agree with Winnicott that it’s enough for a parent to be good enough.
But perhaps it takes a community to even be a good enough parent.
One of the most beautiful things I love about several Nigerian cultures is the norm that when a couple has a baby, it’s taken for granted that family members will go to help them in the first few months—or years, even. Sometimes it’s the mum, or the mother-in-law, or they might even take it in turns. It might be a sibling or cousin or other. Right from the start the couple understand that the community surrounds them and will help them raise this child.
Might that be changing, though?
I’ve written in a previous essay about circles of obligation:
…my name for the number of people who can make personal demands on you and expect you to take them seriously—the people you’re obliged to.
I pointed out in the essay that circles they tend to be large in non-Western cultures and smaller in Western ones (especially the historically Protestant). Now, thanks to globalisation and the inexorable spread of westernisation, small circles of obligation (of which nuclear families are an example) are becoming increasingly normalised.
But the same globalisation that’s made our world so much smaller also means we have new opportunities to build differently. And that includes finding family and cultivating community in new places. And so I take pleasure in watching so many of my friends form and nurture relationships around their children, virtual villages in which the little ones can grow and find love and safety and belonging and lifelong memories.
With luck they too, like me, may grow up to remember a childhood surrounded by cousins and uncles and aunts and all kinds of family.