It’s election season. This means that we will likely be inundated with talk about “family values,” which seems to always be a debated issue in American politics. I eventually wind up disappointed that the conversation becomes politicized and simplified, which leads to no change or real discussion. I think about this also because in my practice I see a number of new parents, couples, and families.
Part of our national identity seems tied to the importance of “family values.” It polls well. People rightfully care about families. Unfortunately, other national values of capitalism and individualism are stronger.
Look at where the US ranks globally in any number of issues related to families. Our maternity leave is laughable. So is our employee vacation time. Our educational system is broken. Infant mortality is shockingly high. Our obesity rates, particularly in children, are a global embarrassment. Parental involvement in schools is weak. Many of our elderly experience isolation, with a great number spending their final years in assisted living facilities or hospice centers. Children are expected to move out of the home at 18. We have far too few households that include three generations. In any number of different ways, we do not value families, despite the fact that we feel that it is important.
There are any number of different reasons for this. Ultimately, though we talk about “family values” every election season, America’s true values are an exaggerated individualism and capitalism. We are implicitly and explicitly encouraged to branch away from our families, separate and individuate, and vigorously pursue success and achievement. Youth and independence are valued at the expense of relying on each other. Parents suffer negative career consequences for taking extended family leave, if they can even afford to do so. Many families cannot afford it. The hypercompetitive capitalist environment encourages us to work more, rather than spend time with children reading books, creating art, and talking. Parents feel pressured to find time to try and participate in their children’s schools, and children are increasingly overscheduled in an attempt to compete in our economy. Even if it were more of a cultural norm to care for aging parents, adult children are too overextended to do so. We are encouraged to do more, be more, achieve more. Good enough is never good enough, and how in the world do we fit in time for family game night with the grandparents when we just got back from flute lessons, dance rehearsal, and soccer, and we have at least a dozen emails to respond to after a quick dinner either picked up from a fast food restaurant or thawed from the Costco processed food collection in the pantry?
The effect of these competing values is a dissonance between what we feel we should be doing with and for our family, and what we are implicitly encouraged to do. We receive mixed messages culturally, but it’s the anti-family, individualist messages that ring the loudest. We often feel helpless to do anything about it. Parents experience a tremendous pressure to fulfill both stated values (family!) and actual values (individualism!). American exceptionalism tells us that we are special and that the structure that we have built is the best. Ideals that encourage perfectionism and achievement further work to create impossible standards for our lives personally and professionally. Children, parents and grandparents feel the pressure to choose between family and capitalism/individualism. Rather than be there to support one another, we are all competing for resources, materially and emotionally. This contributes in immense ways to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, shame, anxiety, and depression. It contributes to stress and exhaustion, to alcoholism and the abuse of other drugs, both prescription and illicit. Families repeatedly come into my office with a sense that things should be better, but are not able to see the external pressures placed on them and the lack of cultural support.
The U.S. does not have family values. Let’s be honest with ourselves. The sooner that we are, the sooner that we can begin to change things. The fact that we talk about family values in the manner that we do is probably compensatory; to cover the fact that we’re actually neglecting our families. Most of us realize on some level that there is a problem.
If we really want to talk about family values, let’s really talk about family values. To do so, we have to have an honest conversation about ideals centered on success, individualism, and work. We have to work to develop a system that allows more free time and spends less time promoting wealth. We need to decrease the hours in the work week and increase vacation and family leave time. We need to create better boundaries around work and personal life. This will free us up to spend more time with family, cooking meals and eating together, and playing and learning together. When we experience the inner tension of two different values, it causes us a tremendous amount of anxiety and distress. Parents are placed into an impossible position to do – alone – more than what should be expected. We all want to do the best for our children and our own parents and we are struggling every day to manage it. Our first step is to externalize the problem. That is, rather than thinking that we are failing, it is important to understand that the culture is failing us. By externalizing, we no longer hold onto the anxiety of the pressure, which does not belong to us in the first place, which will help free us up to find more creative solutions.