Class Notes

Family Ties

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Our fluid support systems

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

I asked my Literature and the Family class to discuss the following statement from Edward Shorter’s History of the Modern Family:

The nuclear family is a state of mind rather than a particular kind of structure or set of household arrangements. It has little to do with whether the generations live together or whether Aunt Mary stays in the spare bedroom. Nor can it be understood with kinship diagrams and figures on family size. What really distinguishes the nuclear family—mother, father, and children—from other patterns of family life in Western society is a special sense of solidarity that separates the domestic unit from the surrounding community. Its members feel that they have much more in common with one another than they do with anyone else on the outside—that they enjoy a privileged emotional climate they must protect from outside intrusion, through privacy and isolation.

Shorter wrote these words back in 1977, but they continue to resonate for my students. Almost everyone in the class—even students from fragmented and nontraditional families—felt that they were members of a family system that was, more or less, walled off from the outside world. But though a few admitted to feeling trapped by their families, most did not. They saw the family as a source of comfort and support in a cold, even brutal outside world. As they spoke, I was reminded of the Victorian idea of family as a place of refuge. In the Victorian system, to which Shorter’s model bears some similarity, the woman serves as the anchor, the “angel in the house,” in the words of Coventry Patmore, a poet of the era who has been much maligned by feminists.

I asked my students if they agreed: does the family require a stay-at-home mother to anchor it? Were their families predicated on this idea? Most of them said no. Familial roles are fluid now, they said; women don’t have to stay home, though they may choose to do so. Either way, the family can remain a refuge.

How can roles be fluid and yet still define a relatively closed system? It is a paradox that I look forward to exploring with the class.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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