Destroying the Cleaver legacy

Last night I read an editorial from Ariel Gore in a recent issue of Hip Mama. It was about breaking down the notion of the nuclear family. You know, one dad, one mom, 2 kids, middle class, white-identifying. Even if the Beav isn't your next door neighbor, the Cleaver legacy is still pervasive. It's still clung to as an ideal, even though it's complete fiction.

We see evidence of a strife to break down cultural baggage about what it means to be a man, or a woman. To re-imagine gender as not directly connected to one's genitalia. Because we're learning, slowly, that there isn't just one definition. And when you put people in boxes, their world shrinks. And then the whole world is filled with boxed up people who don't know how to grow into their own skin.

The same is true for family. We see families that are contrary to the Cleavers, the arrangements are unlimited. Single parent, 2 dads, 2 moms, grandparents, no parents, 19 children, no children by choice, no children by infertility, lost children, step-children, foster children, and on and on. We say we accept them, and for the most part we believe we do. And yet, these contrary families still feel that tug of the Cleaver legacy burden. It happens in simple moments, ordinary interactions that have no ill-will, like "Are you her babysitter? Oh! It's just I've seen her get picked up from school by another woman before." Or, "Hey, can your son come over and play today?" which is met with "I'm sorry, no, he's at his dad's until Friday." And then a response of "Oh bummer. My kid will be so sad." I'm sure your kid will indeed be so sad ... for a minute. Meanwhile, I'll keep myself busy these next few days until I see my kids again and try to catch up with them on the time we spent apart. And then after a couple of days we'll give our hugs on the front porch before school, I'll kiss them good-bye and say again, "I'll see you in a few days." To my own children, weekly, "I'll see you in a few days." It never gets less weird. It always breaks my heart. And I can feel the tug of June Cleaver's critical glance: well you were the one who chose divorce.

There are plays in motion. Our television shows are beginning to depict a new offering of what family can be. But when did looking to TV as a model for real life ever prove to be effective? There's still this tugging of legacy, that by being a "modern family" we're bucking the status quo! That status quo that still knocks at the front door daily with sidelong glances and assumptions. And when we can't (or won't) live up to the status quo, when the one dad, one mom, 2 kids and a healthy income don't pan out, there's depression, there's guilt, there's rage, there's suffering. There's still that box of an ideal that didn't work out, and it's confining. The nuclear ideal has to go away completely. I get what Ariel was saying. You may indeed be in a loving family that has one man, one woman, 2 kids and identify as white. They're yours. Enjoy each other. Love each other. Celebrate your family. But to keep that one structure on a pedestal above others -- even if we don't realize it -- is setting us all up for disaster.

There is more opportunity to grow when we're not constrained. It's physics. (Right? I never took a physics class.) But it's obvious at a basic cellular level.  A sunflower won't reach for the sun if it never sees it. We must strive to let go of tired notions of what family looks like. To expand empathy. To truly embrace each other. To be able to grow.

It's the love that defines family, not the structure. Let's all agree to aspire to love as the status quo of family, even if it must sometimes be filled with too many good-byes.


Could not agree more. Thanks for sharing!
Ladies in Navy said…
i totally agree! great post! :)

ladies in navy
Unknown said…
Oh my... this actually caused me to cry! I grew up in a home with just my dad and my siblings. Had a step-mom and brother for a moment or two. My mom and her partner (my other stepmom) would see me maybe once every two weeks or so. It was incredibly difficult growing up. But, now that I am a parent I am beginning to realize the hardships that my parents must have gone through as well. Beautiful, beautiful post.
So well said, Kelli. I remember the first time I had to leave my youngest with her dad, two states away. At the time, I thought I wouldn't be seeing her for four months, and it literally took everything I had to not fall into a quivering mess when I dropped her off. But I couldn't break down because she didn't need that burden on her small shoulders. So instead, we went to Build-a-Bear and chose bears for one another, and recorded little messages to put in them so that we had a bit of each other when we were apart. Having those little bears helped so much, for me as much as her. As it turned out, she came back to live with me in less than a month, and four years later, her dad has just moved back in-state. So now, like you, I deal with "see you in a few days.” Which is still heartbreaking, on so many levels. But slowly, we are learning how to become a family again - the picture just looks very different than it once did, and there is such joy (and challenge) in the becoming.
It's crazy, right? Split and blended and generally contrary to the status quo are truly the norm, but there's still a general expectation that the nuclear family is what we should strive for. My kids know that Tim and I won't get married (though we'd love to throw a helluva party at some point), and they have countless examples of families that aren't typically nuclear. I'm hopeful that their expectation will extend beyond the US tradition, and will simply aspire to have a happy, healthy love.

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