The nuclear family.
The term refers to a very specific family unit structure including mother, father, and child. It is essentially the operating system for a functioning family, excluding the outside help or influence of others. It is a very Western approach that is uncommonly found around the rest of the world. In many places, relying on an extension of immediate family is an everyday practice and necessity. Because of our culture in America and the way our lives are built, we have become very internal in the way we handle our affairs.
I recently had the chance to go home to Texas to visit my sister upon the arrival of her son, Micah. I spent three days playing with my nieces, cleaning my sister’s house, and letting her take naps to catch up on some of her sleep. By the end of the trip, I was exhausted, but in a good way. I had a lot on my plate at home and a lot of responsibilities that were put on hold so that I could leave town for a few days, but the stress of it all was relieved in my ability to focus on someone else and what they needed. It made my burden lighter to make a sacrifice for something that was worthy of sacrifice.
While I was sweeping the floor in my sister’s kitchen, I was struck by my own “get it done” attitude in my personal life. I do not often ask for help, much less think about it. My husband and I address needs and problems as they come with what we have. With the exception of asking for an occasional babysitter, we typically manage in whatever way we can.
Lately, this has been more difficult to do because I started back to school this fall and my husband’s work has been all-consuming. All of it has not only squashed my social life, but it has sapped whatever free time at home that I’ve had. Dishes pile up. Laundry baskets overflow. Nights get later and later and mornings get earlier and earlier. It has forced me to ask for help more than I usually do. I’ve had to put away my pride and instead of asking myself if I should be able to do it all, I’ve had to ask myself if I can do it all.
If we can break out of the nuclear mindset and balance it with a more communal approach to family, I believe we may all be less overwhelmed and more connected. As with any philosophy, being radical is not the answer. There are great benefits to the nuclear approach that get lost in extreme community-based management. There are good and bad in both, which is why a balance of extremes is usually most productive.
Aside from being willing to ask for help, the bigger question is whether we are willing to return the favor. Sometimes, supporting each other can turn into score keeping and grudge building, but give and take is essential to successfully reaching out and accepting help from friends and extended family. It means noticing when a loved one needs something, realistically assessing whether you can commit to meeting that need, and then voluntarily being inconvenienced to follow through. In our busy lives, this can be a huge challenge.
I am on a personal mission to let my tendency to control go when it comes to having it all together on the home and family front. I also want to be more of a stable support to the people that I love, when I can be. It will require a lot of things from me — some of them interpersonal and some of them practical, but all will take sacrifice. Hopefully the result will be a little more room in my life to serve others and the ability to reap the blessing of others serving our family, without the guilt or fear it sometimes brings.
A few things to remember:
- Be realistic. You may want to serve the people around you more but keep in mind that you cannot possibly meet every need and answer every distress call. There are only so many hours in the day and you have to use wisdom.
- Be careful with commitments. With the previous point in mind, be sure to only commit to what you can truly carry out.
- Don’t put expectations on people. Just because you want to operate more communally does not mean that others do. Live your life the way you choose and let others choose for themselves.
- This is just a season! Busyness comes in waves throughout life. You may be the one asking for help now, but you won’t always be. And if you are the one giving the help, remember that you may also find yourself in need of it one day.
Do your best, as you can, and when you can’t, dial a family member’s or a friend’s number. If you are the one getting the call, make an effort to make some room. Next time you need someone, you may benefit from the culture of service that you are helping to develop.