Why bother? On family obligation

This year, we are taking a year off from Christmas. The Girlfriend and I resolved at some point this summer that we would not travel to see either of our parents over the holiday — a choice made easier by the fact that it was my family’s “turn” for Thanksgiving this year and her family was planning on coming to visit us at some point — but she felt we couldn’t simply sit at home if we were skipping. We needed an excuse, and hence we planned a trip to Paris, which various considerations led us to reschedule for New Year’s. Hence we will wind up sitting at home on Christmas, in our own apartment, in the city we’ve chosen to live in, doing the kinds of things we enjoy doing.

For me, the lack of travel for Christmas almost overshadows the trip to Paris. I’ve hated Christmas at least since I was a teenager, and I’ve dreaded traveling home since college. I don’t like the long drive to Michigan, I don’t like being in the suburbs, I don’t like feeling like I have to hide a lot of things about my life — aside from the occasional game of ping-pong or Mario, I derive very little pleasure from any of the proceedings and am constantly counting down the hours until I can get back to my actual life. I can’t imagine that I’m adding much joy to my family’s holiday, either. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt judged or looked down on by their fancy academic son from the city, or at the very least can tell that I’m systematically minimizing my time there.

I realize this all makes me a terrible person. I’ve come to terms with that. What has been bothering me in the last few years is: why do I still do it? Why did it take the elaborate excuse of a European vacation to embolden me to skip out on Christmas when I have been longing to do so for literally decades at this point?

Hence while my attitude is idiosyncratic and extreme, I think it does open out onto more general questions of family obligation. I can understand why close-knit families have been the historical norm, and I understand that they continue to provide a valuable support network for many people, especially people who are raising children. Yet it seems as though there are social forces at work in contemporary America that render the whole thing an increasingly empty gesture. For increasing numbers of people whose families are geographically dispersed, the obligation is still there, but it carries with it none of the benefits. The holiday season is the clearest example: millions of people are traveling, at great expense, at the most physically dangerous time of year to travel — all so that they can navigate an emotional minefield, always threatened by the possibility that the fragile adult relationships between parent and child will revert to more familiar and humiliating patterns.

If I had to venture a theory, I’d say it’s because the family bond, for all its faults, is the only durable bond available. We live in such an atomized society that nothing else has the opportunity to arise and fulfill those same functions of support. The only viable supplement is religion, which connects family units to a broader community — and again, though increasing numbers of people find traditional religion unappealling and even damaging, no alternative has arisen that can reliably produce bonds of support and obligation within and across generations. So we are thrown back on these outdating and restrictive social forms all the more, because their breakdown only highlights the fact that there is no alternative to them. And even when we try to create alternatives, we wind up aping the old forms, putting together atheist churches or, more commonly, groups of old friends that are “like family.”

What we need is the excuse of the trip to Paris, but on a society-wide scale. I might not even be joking.

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13 Responses to “Why bother? On family obligation”

  1. david cl driedger Says:

    I don’t think tailor made tourism is exactly a new response to prior social obligations. At least that’s how I hear it lamented by the old folks at my church.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad you were able to cut directly to the main point of the post.

  3. Patrick Says:

    The first thing I’ll say is that I think for many people, families are still doing work for them, check out things like the #shamelesslyCarribean hash tag on twitter to see numerous responses of how family and community do do work for some people,

    So I think we can take as given that one of the major forces that has “hollowed out” the family is capitalism. But of course for most of the history of capitalism the ability to function was partly based on families acting as “firms” in the economic sense. Here we have the unpaid but vital labor of families, and the corresponding origin of critiques such as “wages for housework.”

    But in another of the contradictions in capitalism, as it advances it ends up sabotaging the mechanisms that enabled that life (as did struggles for various marginalized groups which attacked it from the other direction).

    So why, in a moment where, for many of us, families don’t do the work they once did, do we cling to the forms of obligation? Well that’s easy. Family structure is a social phenomenon with lots of proverbial inertia. The family and our obligations are moralized (and conversely when someone is pushing a particular morality, they often use appeals or family to justify it).

  4. david cl driedger Says:

    No I take your point (or context) very seriously. It’s just a perpetual navigation and wager as to how much you want to invest and risk in terms of hiding, disclosing, fleeing (knowing in the back your head you are going to remain somehow implicated regardless). I don’t particularly enjoy being both the minister and the most heathen in my family. So yah, you shouldn’t actually need an excuse but the system will tend to demonize those in flight, but flight to where? Paris, sure. It’s good, seriously. I hope it is Sabbath / sabbatical from the system. But the system remains.
    My only point is that it seems that for many people that sort of flight has also become perpetual if not a little pathological.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    As someone who is single, I think one of the reasons family obligations around the holidays are all but mandatory is that it prevents partnered others from taking sympathy on you. Given that family is considered good and aloneness is anathema in society, it becomes valuable to partake in the gesture so that others don’t take pity on you, a truly revolting emotion. Another reason why family remains powerful is that it provides the illusion of social bonds without the risk of rejection (i.e. blood is thicker than water). Although familial relationships are just as tenuous as non-familial bonds, they provide us with the promise of belonging without social performance. In reality, the holidays (like most other family gathering) tend to induce regression in all family members (as you noted), likely leading the parents to be irritated that their children cannot maintain a mutually satisfying adult relationship with them.

    The holidays for me are often bittersweet because even though I’m able to reunite with important friends and family, I’m reminded of how fragmented and dispersed we all are (from the east coast to the west coast). As someone who would like to be closer to his family, it’s just irritating that it is all but impossible to try and advance one’s career and stay connected to your family (unless you had the good fortune of being from a major metropolitan era).

  6. david cl driedger Says:

    Thanks for the analysis. I am fine striking it from the record it as a throwaway comment. Adam made a comment about not liking the feelings of having to hide things. I find that to be a major tension. When I am actually open about my thoughts or I try to address something that offends me it tends to get me ‘condemned’. I try not to flaunt anything with them. The ‘why bother’ has only increased over time, I just did not get how the gesture of tourism and flight made sense in the way he outlined the situation. I actually found it a little offensive (but that was just my association with hearing ‘trip to Paris’). This is just perpetual discernment knowing there is ‘nothing outside the family’.

  7. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Put an ocean and a couple of continents between yourself and your family and you will be absolved of all obligations.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I understand how “a trip to Paris” sounds very “privileged,” etc., so perhaps it’s not the best example.

    A more substantive remark: queer communities have experimented with different structures of kinship, if only because so many people in that community have found themselves forcibly cut off from traditional family ties. It may be the one actual-existing alternative to traditional family or religion.

  9. James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith) Says:

    I always thought Franzen’s Corrections was asking a similar question.

  10. Ken Surin Says:

    I hated Christmas as a child. Opening presents was fun, but my father would rip into his first beer straight after breakfast, and since he was an angry and aggressive drunk, mayhem would ensue, mother and family members staying with us would be upset, and it was a blessed relief when he staggered to his bed at the end of the awful evening. I fled ‘the nest’ at the first opportunity and dreaded going back.


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