A Dialogue on Why the Phrase “Families Belong Together” Can Be Triggering (unrelated to its actual intention, which we support)

A Dialogue on Why the Phrase “Families Belong Together” Can Be Triggering (unrelated to its actual intention, which we support)

Chaya Grossberg and Emily S. Cutler

This piece was also published on Chaya Grossberg's blog.

Over the past few weeks, numerous human rights activists have rallied against the forcible separation of immigrant families, using the slogan "Families Belong Together." While we 100% could not agree more with this cause and strongly oppose the ongoing abuses against immigrants, we found the phrase "Families Belong Together" to be triggering for a variety of reasons. In the below dialogue, we critique the family system and its effects on our society.

Emily:

Children and youth are rarely acknowledged as an oppressed, marginalized class that has very little decision-making power over their bodies or their lives. Children and youth are pretty much constantly subjected to the will of their parents. In some ways, the family system as it currently exists is a totalitarian regime - every aspect of children’s lives including where they live, where they go to school, who they spend time with, what diet they consume, what they wear, and what happens to their bodies (such as medical decisions, having to hug or kiss family members, etc) is regulated by their parents. 

In many ways, children are seen as the property of their parents. The role parents play in making the decision to force life on their children and bring them into being is rarely acknowledged as an act done without consent. Often, parents make this decision in order to bring into being a person who will carry out the values of the family system and conform to that family system’s norms. Children’s behavior, including their achievements and failures, are considered to belong to their parents, and they may experience enormous pressure to conform to their parents’ standards of success or normality. This can lead to intense distress in children and well into adulthood.

I know that this holds true for me in my personal experience. Growing up, I often felt like a shell of a person due to my parents’ expectations of me. They placed a great degree of emphasis on my external achievements as well as my appearance. The only form of praise I received from them was when I obtained perfect grades or accomplished anything that might help me get into a prestigious university. I was encouraged to pursue interests for the sake of recognition, not enjoyment; for example, my parents discouraged and shamed me for my interest in creative writing - as they believed it took away from my academic studies - until I began to receive creative writing awards and was recruited to the University of Pennsylvania’s creative writing program. As a teenager, I felt a pervasive sense that my only value to my family or to others was my productivity and academic accomplishments. I still struggle with this a great deal, and I have had to distance myself from my family in order to learn to value myself as a person and not a resume.

Additionally, my mother places enormous value on external appearance. I was forced to get my eyebrows waxed from the age of 11 years old, and I was yelled at constantly for refusing to wear contact lenses instead of glasses. Even these seemingly small acts of denying my bodily autonomy or ability to make decisions about my own body have had traumatic effects on me. 

So I think the idea of “keeping families together” can really ignore these power dynamics. “Family” doesn’t always mean unconditional love or belonging. It can also mean control, coercion, and the forceful imposition of oppressive societal norms and standards. 

Chaya:

Nuclear families and the emphasis on and idealization of the family unit increases all of these problems, mostly due to isolation. For example, if children grew up in communities, they'd be able to be influenced by a much larger number of people and have choices as to which adults they want to turn to as mentors/teachers or role models. Parents would have competition rather than a monopoly on influencing their children's viewpoints and affecting them with their own unresolved issues and projections.

Studies have shown that kids in larger families have less psychological stress due to not being overly focused on and scrutinized by their parents and getting more diversity of people to incorporate into their notion of what is possible. Yet, large isolated nuclear families are also stressful financially and kids often don't get enough attention or (possibly) resources. And there is still a fixed family system of values that they are overly inundated with.

So I think rather than "keeping families together" and isolated at all costs, "families" should be much more flexible, with a village or community/commune. This also lessens stress on the parents and would decrease parents neurotic obsession with their kids identity, "success" and projecting all of their own sense of failure onto their kids. 

It would also make families less vulnerable to manipulation. Isolated family units breed excessive self consciousness, identity politics, perfectionism, narcissism and egocentrism. Everything is about "my kids" and using "my kids" to show my own success, prove myself etc. When people are overly self conscious in this way about their family, they are easily tricked into spending money on all kinds of unnecessary and even harmful things, due to the anxiety to prove themselves via the appearance of their "family". Less emphasis goes to actually nurturing the people in the family and their actual needs.

With less family emphasis, the world itself could be like a mutually supportive family and more collaborative, where diversity and different skills and gifts are appreciated, by a more diverse group of people representing a wider variety of needs and "types".

Emily:

Children growing up in communities can dramatically reduce the pressure on women to have children. As it is currently, having biological children is seen as the only or primary way for people to leave a legacy or have influence on the next generation. It is often seen as a marker of success or normality to be a biological parent.

I think this pervasive idea is often violent, both to women and to youth. Women face tremendous pressure to make intrusive, painful alterations to their bodies that can result in severe injury or death. It is just one of the many ways we are told that our bodies don’t belong to us but instead serve the purpose of pregnancy and childbearing. This idea is also incredibly violent to youth, who may be forced to exist out of a desire for parents to fit in, be considered normal or successful, or pass on their biological genes, rather than a desire to love a child unconditionally. 

In villages, people would be able to leave a legacy and have an important role in children’s lives without bearing biological children. In this type of society, having biological children would be optional and freely chosen, and those who do not or cannot have biological children would be just as valued as those who do. 

In our current framework, we can also begin to explore ways to reduce socially coerced pregnancy. We should normalize adoption - both the formal process of adopting a child - as well as “informal adoption,” or the idea of other adults besides a child’s parents playing a role in their lives and becoming like family. The latter is one way that we can begin introducing some degree of choice into children’s lives regarding their family system.

Chaya:

The pressure to have an isolated nuclear family or to expand one's family has led to rampant pethood. Most families, couples or individuals have at least one pet, either to alleviate the isolation of not having a nuclear family or to alleviate isolation within the family, as well as to "have a family" if one doesn't and to expand the personal family if one does.

Pets and the agriculture to feed them contributes more to global warming than cars!

The pressure to have a family leads to the romanticizing of domestication, domination and possession of animals, simply to bring them into the family. In a less isolated tribe or village, wild animals could come and go and be friends of the community, but also be free and independent from human possession, domination and reliance on their care.

A natural and free relationship with animals would be more respectful, less burdensome on natural resources (including other animals who are factory farmed to feed pets), and more honest. If they aren't domesticated, animals have their own natural families and don't need to be protected by us because they are entrapped in our world of isolated nuclear families against their will.

Emily:

In general, “domestication” is such a powerful way to describe the impact of the family system on both people and animals. Both pets and children experience a great deal of behaviorism - the use of rewards and punishments to shape behavior to conform to certain standards and norms. Pet training programs often involve the use of food to reward behaviors we deem to be good and physical pain or verbal commands to punish behaviors we deem to be bad; similarly, parenting styles often involve giving love, approval, or attention to reward behaviors we deem to be normal or good and physical pain or verbal shaming to punish behaviors we deem to be abnormal or bad. 

In both cases, behaviorism is used to manipulate and coerce humans and animals to act in the way society prescribes, not in the way that feels natural to them or best fulfills their needs. This, to me, is a form of imperialism and colonization. 

A village could potentially offer children, animals, and all people much more freedom. The biggest challenge would be making sure that village standards/norms/rules do not replace family system standards/norms/rules. In any group of people - including the family system as well as larger communities - there is always the potential for oppressive social norms to be enforced that harm individuals and take away their ability to be who they are. In developing a village, careful consideration would need to be taken in order to ensure that people are permitted - and encouraged - to retain their individuality.

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