The Modern Family-Why We Miss the Extended Family & How We Cope Without It


What does family mean to you? How close are you to your extended family?

The Power of Matriarchies-The all-female extended family

Historically, the American family has relied on extended family members, neighbors, and mutual aid organizations to navigate the tough times, and to celebrate life. Looking back in search of the first American families,  some Native American clans relied on matrilineal societies to make decisions, raise children, and uphold culture. The Lenape, Hopi, Iroquois, and Chickasaw, for example, organized themselves along matrilineal clans, which meant that upon birth, a child belonged to the mother’s family. Women held important roles. They were the keepers of the land, and they were consulted when going into battle. Young men born into Chickasaw families learn to become men through the teachings of his mother’s brothers. As the elders aged, their accrued knowledge and vast life experience would become invaluable. It would be the elders’ responsibility to pass down their wisdom to the young, and all members of a tribe would care for the elders as they approached the end of life.

Native American Woman by Sol Quartucci

Native American women leaned on elder women to raise their young, and on all women to work the fields and to erect their homes. Divorce was an option available to them. If a male abused or betrayed a marital agreement, she could  place his belongings outside the home, and the arrangement would be done.

The Colonial Family-Extended Family-Free and Unfree Dependants maintain the Home

With colonial contact in the Americas, Europeans brought with them unique notions of the family, and family member roles within them, that differed from the Native American worldview. Colonial settlers led their families according to patriarchies. Man was in charge and led his family, much like a king ruled over his subordinates. His home was like a microcosm of a godly, ordered world. The colonial head of household was the only family member able to sign contracts based on race, gender and class. He ruled over all of his dependents, the free and the enslaved, and their labor was crucial. In colonial households, families consisted of numerous dependents;  each was vital to the maintenance of the household.

Large colonial family
Peale (American colonial era artist, 1741-1827). The Peale Family by Sol Quartucci

Agricultural work, trips to the local market, animal husbandry, and the care of a home without running water or heat, were labor intensive, daily tasks. Infant mortality was high and women often died in childbirth. Widows and widowers frequently remarried in colonial times, blending families into lots of step-parenting relations. New partners and siblings provided emotional solace when losing loved ones. Remarriages were also crucial arrangements for economic survival.

Fighting For More Control Over their Families

With the advent of women’s rights in the 19th century, women sought more equality in the patriarchal household, and access to the masculine public sphere. The transition from domesticity into the world of outside work introduced difficulties for large families. Women experimented with doing piece work at home, while babysitting, cleaning, and cooking. The arrangement proved extremely tiring, unhealthy and dangerous. The homes were not properly ventilated and children raised themselves on the streets.

Women organized  for better working and living conditions, achieving the legality of the divorce,  and accessing birth control to assume some control over the shape of their families.

An Exhibit on the History of the Women’s Rights Movement by Sol Quartucci

Immigrant Families-Coming to America, and leaving behind Extended Families

Immigrant households faced particular challenges. With each new wave of immigration, new configurations of the American family emerged. As new immigrants came to the United States and took unskilled jobs, many did so leaving behind the support of extended families. A number of them immigrated alone–either due to exclusion acts–or due to lack of means to support them. For the men immigrating alone, the closest feeling to an extended family was found in the ethnic neighborhood where immigrants spoke the same language and shared culture and religious rituals. Here, strangers quickly became family.

Protecting Cultural Heritage and Becoming an American Family

How to assimilate into American life? To what degree? Immigrants without families found support in ethnic neighborhoods and through mutual aid societies. These organizational families lent immigrants support–emotional, and financial–during difficult times. Members paid dues into these societies, which in turn helped immigrants retain a sense of culture and family. As ethnic neighborhoods preserved foreign cultural practices, some Native born Americans worried that ethnic enclaves would make immigrant families, unassimilable.

19th century Immigrant family by Sol Quartucci

Today’s Families-Extended Families are Far and Spread Out

Today, like in previous generations, immigrant families moving into the United States continue to face the challenge of separation from their extended families, and the decisions over language acquisition, cultural immersion, and the adoption of American values. These discussions are as contentious today, as they were back during the early waves of immigration.

We Are All On The Move

Yet immigrant families are not the only ones facing the challenges of distance and separation. The size of the country, and the current state of the economy have made migrants out of all-types of American families. On the move in search of work and educational opportunities, the American family is stretched so thin that  our only connection to some of our closest relatives is just a name. We have grown increasingly nuclear, and isolated from grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters.

“Though we may be far apart….” Family gift for families who are separated geographically by Sol Quartucci

What Losing Our Extended Families Have Cost Us

This phenomenon has introduced a number of challenges for the family. Historically, the role of extended families has been an important one-financially and emotionally. For parents working with young children, extended family members and older relatives have, in the past, been able to help the younger generation by providing daycare, help with the house, care of grandchildren and pets, and assistance with meal preparation.This arrangement rewarded grandparents as well, providing them with shelter, love, emotional, physical and mental support.

Grandparents babysitting grandchildren by Sol Quartucci

Who is To Care for Our Elders Today?

Most of us, today, are not able to provide for our elders. This means that elders are aging elsewhere….whether in a different region, a nursing home, or a different country. Many American children are growing up away from grandparents and cousins. This is a great loss. In an economy where dual wage earners are a necessity, and the rise of health care is skyrocketing, how can we afford to take care of our elders at home? And how can we afford the cost of daycare for the young?

Why is Daycare so Expensive by Sol Quartucci

What Happens When the Family Isn’t there to Help with Childcare?

Between the cost of elderly care, and the cost of daycare, we are challenged to fulfill our roles as daughters, as sons, and as parents. Today, we are left  to make tough decisions: seek out economic opportunities which often result in a move, or stay close to our families, but, likely, struggle. In this overworked, stretched-to-the-max nuclear, and really-challenged, single parent households, what are we to do as parents?

Single-Parenting Without Extended Family Support is an Incredibly Difficult Job

The emotional and financial challenges for single-parent households are especially dire. For these families, help is needed on all fronts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3 out of about 12 million single parent families in 2014, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Today, 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 — a total of about 17.4 million — are being raised without a father, and nearly half (45%) live below the poverty line. If a single mother is able to work, her earning power still lags significantly compared with men’s.

Caring for Children with Disabilities without the Help of Extended Family Is Extremely Difficult

What about the impact of isolation from extended family, and cost of living for parents raising children with disabilities? Families who care for children with a disability often find themselves sliding towards poverty. A recent national U.S. study reported that 40% of families of children with special health care needs experience a financial burden due to their child’s condition. 

Not only are children with disabilities affected, but so are their families. Due to their care-taking responsibilities, these families tend to be single-income families that require frequent time off to care for their children. The emotional impact of care-taking without breaks, or extended family support is also extremely challenging on the parent and the siblings.

Reconfiguring the Modern Family

The challenges of raising our families as best as we can, without the help of extended family members (who are doing what they can to help themselves), leave us rethinking family and negotiating how best to serve those we love. Is financial provision the best way to care for our dependents? Should we sell everything, shrink our living spaces and focus on being there more?

Can we do both? What happens when we have to choose? Our modern circumstances are pointing us to reconfigure the family and the family members’ roles within it-

Remember the Elders and the Young

In his address to the United States Congress this past Thursday, Pope Francis praised the courage, the resilience and the determination of the American family. He referred to the elderly as “storehouses of wisdom forged by experience, who long to share their stories and insights. Many retired, but still active, they keep working to build up this land.” Pope Francis encouraged us to reach out to our elders and dialogue with them. He also reminded us to be there for the young, especially, adolescents.

Technology helps, as Does Turning Friends into our Soul Families, but what about the Economy?

While we may not be able to shrink the geographical distance separating us from our loved ones, we can thank the technological innovations of our generation for creations like, Skype, and chatting devices that help us get a little closer to our family members.

This helps somewhat. But, what are we to do locally, when we need more family support than is available?

Financially, many Americans are forced to turn to Uncle Sam.

We Want our Children to Have more Opportunities-If we Are Aiming at the Lofty American Goal of Self-Reliance, Things Need To Change.

We need to do a better job of training our young adults to succeed in the working world. Our young adults are not currently prioritized, but they are the future. We must provide them with plenty of opportunities to work, to intern, to develop 21st century, usable skills that will allow them to land jobs. We also need to help prepare them for interviews, identify their skills and talents, and helping them search for jobs where they can contribute and grow. We need to create incentives for employers to give our young graduates a chance. And we need to address job market readiness, before we hand them their degrees. The number of college graduates on foodstamps are on the rise. This shouldn’t be. They deserve to be equipped to succeed and for opportunities to be available to them after their training is completed, and before they start paying back student loans. In an increasingly globalized world, chances are that their extended families will keep moving, and our young adults’ success will be up to them.

Pope Francis on the American Family

A couple of weeks before taking his trip to the U.S., Pope Francis talked to American families from the Vatican via a TV screen. In addressing a single mom, and a street youth living a shelter, Pope Francis offered encouragement: “Life can be very hard and confusing, and we can get lost. Don’t try to walk through it alone. We are not meant to do so. If you don’t have a family, lean on your friends, make them your new family. On the surface it may not seem so, but they need you, too.”

Pope Francis and young woman by Sol Quartucci

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