By Qin Sun Stubis
(reprinted from The Santa Monica Star)
Family is something we are born into. Its impact on us lasts a lifetime. For many, it is also a security blanket, supporting and protecting us in moments of crisis and uncertainty. Who we are is often defined by where we come from, and family gives us that sense of belonging–its unique value and traditions carrying us forward from generation to generation.
The definition of the ideal family varies from culture to culture and from time to time. Growing up in China during the 1960s, I remember that the “perfect family” consisted of four healthy grandparents, two parents, and lots of children, preferably boys, surrounded by a massive network of uncles, aunts, and cousins, all living in close proximity.
It was like a village where everyone’s related…and the bigger it was, the better. To underscore how important the size of a family was, one of my classmates was named “Little Six,” for being–you guessed it–the sixth child born into that lucky clan. Her parents chose her name to broadcast their pride and their good fortune in the fertility department.
China eventually had to tackle its population explosion problem. Suddenly, the preferred rule changed from “the bigger, the better” to “one child per family,” no matter whether that child was a boy or a girl. It became quite a dilemma for those who wanted to adhere to tradition: Since only boys got to carry on family names, having a girl meant that family line would soon end. As a result, lots of children came to this world “illegally” and, sadly, many newborn baby girls were abandoned.
Back in the pioneer days, Americans, too, favored big families with lots of boys, for they needed men to work, and hardship and sickness often took lives away unexpectedly. The American family model then was very much dictated by pragmatism and necessity.
Since then, the image of an ideal family in America has been defined and redefined many times over. In the 1950s and 60s the “perfect” American family–at least as portrayed on television–was a working father and home-making mother living in a house of their own with two unbelievably well-behaved children and a dog. This picture of a comfortable middle-class existence captured the popular imagination here and even abroad, and eventually became synonymous with the “American dream.”
Today, our ideas about what constitutes a real–much less an ideal–American family are much more varied. Dramatic social and economic changes in recent years have led to households with one parent, two parents of the same gender, and blended families with kids from previous marriages added to the mix. They may all be living in a small, rented apartment instead of a spacious house, and adopt children of completely different backgrounds and even races instead of having their own. Some may simply prefer to adopt a peg-legged puppy or homeless kitten and declare them their “family.” In this modern era, a family is determined not by the number of its members or the size of its residence, but on who it decides to include as its members.
You could say that Americans have declared their independence from the concept of a single “perfect” family, and created their own ideal, defined by their unique individualism and character. This approach yields a variety of diverse and beautiful families of every conceivable size, color, and flavor. It also fits in perfectly with this nation’s historic tradition of individualism and choice–a strategy that through the centuries has always set us apart, made us special, and made us prize not just someone else’s vision of the ideal, but our own.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Qin Stubis is a regular columnist for The Santa Monica Star. She lives in Bethesda, MD.