Anyone who knows us is aware that we have two dogs, Belvedere and Hamilton. Belvedere is an English Hound and Hamilton is a pit/lab mix with a stronger emphasis on the lab now that he’s getting older. Both dogs are super protective and have a reputation in the neighborhood for protecting their domain. Anyone walking too close to their fence, i.e., on the sidewalk, is going to be made aware of their presence.
What I find interesting are the different ways the two dogs approach their job of protecting the family. Belvedere considers us all as a single unit. When he first goes out of the morning, he checks the perimeter of the yard for dangerous intruders such as homicidal squirrels or thieving raccoons. Once he’s sure the yard is safe, he comes back and lies down near the door. Hamilton, however, focuses more on the safety of individual family members. If none of us are outside with him, he wanders around and tries to convince Belvedere to play with him. Let anyone step outside, though, and he’s immediately by their side, their personal bodyguard against all dangers real or imagined until we decide to go back into the house.
Inside, we see a similar approach. Belvedere is content to sleep on the most comfortable cushion he can find, regardless of where it is or who is around. He listens for the sound of the door and pays little attention to internal squabbles between family members. Hamilton, however, has to be near one of us at all times, preferably me. If there’s an argument between the kids, he gets upset and stands between them. He also does the same with the cats, interestingly enough. Again, the dogs’ emphasis is on the family as a unit versus a collection of individuals.
There’s a lot of commonality in both dogs’ approaches. Both bark ferociously at anyone they perceive as a threat and breaching the fence in any way is a danger a few unfortunate people learned through painful experience. Both are especially protective of the kids. Both know that outside is more dangerous than inside. Neither like seeing the kids get on the school bus in the morning. Both come running when anyone returns home.
What we see in the difference between the dogs is a separation of philosophy of what makes a family. For Belvedere, we are homogenous, we all go together. If one of us is gone, the whole is incomplete, but he remains with the ones still at home. For Hamilton, though, we are a collective, individuals residing together. If one of us is gone, he would leave the group to protect the one.
In the dogs’ example, we find the basic differences for how the family is defined and how each individual member is valued. We might think of Belvedere as being more of a traditionalist, with there being two parents and their offspring composing the core family unit. Hamilton is more liberal, emphasizing individual identities from which the family benefits, however it is constructed. One might reasonably argue that neither view is puritanically wrong or right, but the definition one chooses inevitably affects one’s valuation both within and external to the group. As such, how one operates within the family, the roles we take, the responsibilities we assume, affect our valuation, and that valuation is noticed and generally adopted by the society of which we are part. This makes our relationship with family one of the most challenging aspects in determining the value of our lives.
If we’re going to dissect this to better understand our value, we need some definitions. Be warned, there’s not a lot of consensus among philosophers, lawyers, or sociologists in this regard. In fact, just trying to define what is a family gets pretty sticky.
A Family By Any Name
The traditional definition of family, in almost every corner of the world, is based on biology: man, woman, offspring. That approach might be slightly modified throughout history, with multiple women attached to one male for the purposes of propagation and a demonstration of wealth, but the paternalistic definition of family is endorsed by most major religions and codified by law in most countries. Chances are that when one uses the term family, this is the definition that first comes to mind.
What we see in contemporary culture, though, is a need to revise that definition to one not necessarily based on biology. Same-gender couples can form a parental unit. Children can be adopted, which isn’t new, but they can also be achieved through various scientific methods that may or may not hold any biological relation to a parent. Marriage is not the only viable form of partnership. This not only challenges the social definition of family but also the legal/political one as it brings into question the rights of a child not biologically related to the parents.
The concept of family is something that is continuously evolving to meet the greater needs of society. The idea of the family being grounded in romantic love wasn’t prevalent until the 18th century. Acceptance of polygamy, same-gender relationships, inter-racial relationships, marrying outside caste systems, and sex between relatives are all matters currently argued by various cultures around the world. Defining family is like trying to nail gelatin to a wall.
Not that we should be surprised. Plato described in The Republic a concept that families should be a publicly shared entity, with male/female relationships being temporary for the act of breeding and then children raised collectively in nurseries. Both genders shared responsibility across familial duties, but he argued that the state was ultimately responsible because what is good for the family is ultimately best for the state. Families were public rather than private entities. The idea seems radical and totally unfeasible to us now, but what he described wasn’t too different from actual life in the fourth century BCE.
Aristotle then comes along and throws cold water on Plato’s idea. In his work Politics, he makes the argument that Plato had everything backward and that the state is dependent on individual families, not the other way around. Aristotle’s philosophy had two lasting effects. The first was that it solidified the nuclear family as a political entity. Western cultures still have not departed from this concept and governments continue to make the argument that they must regulate families for the good of the state. This has resulted in laws affecting everything from who can marry whom to how many children one can have, the gender hierarchy within the family, who should be educated in which facilities, and the whole debacle over reproductive rights. The second effect was to establish strong patriarchy where the father is the pivot point of the family, relegating women and any extended family members to lesser roles. Whether Aristotle might have anticipated the levels of abuse perpetrated by this concept is impossible to argue. While the lessons of history might seem obvious to some, many still argue that Aristotle’s view of family is the only one that’s workable.
Once the sense of patriarchy was established, no one wanted to let go. There have been dozens of arguments from Aquinas to Hobbes to Locke to Kant and Hegel and they all ultimately end up supporting a male-dominated family structure even while recognizing its flaws and weaknesses. When John Stuart Mill comes along mid-nineteenth century and compares the subjugation of women in families to slavery, his ideas were seen as too radical, immoral, and doomed to failure. Yet, enough people paid attention to set off a movement for women’s suffrage and the continuing fight for gender equality.
What all these arguments confirm is that the social and political challenges faced by the state have their roots in how people are valued within the family. Change that base valuation in any way and society changes along with it. This is where things start getting interesting.
Fiddling With The Family
Across a couple of millennia or more, the basic valuation within a family has gone something like this: Father > Eldest Son > other male offspring > Mother > eldest daughter > other female offspring. In some societies, extended family, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins, might factor into the hierarchy as well, but it was always the father who was dominant and had the final say on all matters.
In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the song “Tradition” lays out these traditional roles and subsequent valuations distinctly:
Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy book?
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.
The sons, the sons! Tradition!
And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?
The daughters, the daughters! Tradition!
The story within the musical is relevant to our discussion because Tevye is forced to deal with changes in those traditional roles and the valuations associated with them. His leadership is challenged not only by his wife but his daughters. An outsider, someone Tevye did not pick, demands the right to marry the eldest daughter, Tzeitel, simply because he loves her. His second daughter, Hodel, marries a revolutionary without her father’s permission. And Chava, the third daughter, elopes with a young Russian she’s fallen in love with.
With each storyline, there is a change in the character’s valuation from one being subservient to the patriarch to being in charge of their own destiny. Each decision ripples through the community and impacts the small town. The tale itself is a caricature that is authentic but not terribly realistic. After all, a great deal of change has to happen over the course of a three-hour musical. Yet, we see how changes in valuation within the family have a dramatic effect.
Now, let’s imagine how we might re-work that same musical in a modern setting, removing the religious structure imposed on the family and putting the family in a major modern city such as New York. Tevye is more likely to now be an unemployed factory worker, dumped from his job due to modernization at the dairy that employed him. He now bumps around from odd job to odd job trying to stay busy and create income. Golde, his wife, is more likely to be the primary breadwinner. She’s industrious and owns her own small business, generating the majority of the income and, as a result, calling most of the shots within the family. Immediately, the valuation within the family unit has changed, and not only is that evident within Tevye’s family, but it’s also evident throughout the community of which they’re part. Everyone in the neighborhood encounters Golde, knows she’s a strong individual who helps drive the economic standing of the community. So, despite Tevye’s situation, the family valuation goes up.
Like her mother, Tzeitel, who we remember as being a strong, stubborn fighter for what she sees as right, is a businesswoman and in the power couple of she and her tailor husband Motel, they build a fashion empire. Financially, they’re worth millions. They live in an expansive home on the upper Westside. They’re busy, though, so Tzeitel has made the decision that they’re not going to have children. Within their home community, that decision has little to no effect, but within the family the news is devastating. Golde tells her she’s failing in her job as a woman and when they gather for family dinners, Tzeitel’s valuation is a little less than it might be in other places.
Hodel, in this modern telling of the tale, is gay. When she first came out to her parents, who are still staunch traditionalists, she felt her valuation fall with their disapproval but within her community of peers, it soared because she had the strength to stand up and defend who she is. Tevye, being the man he is, eventually comes around and accepts his daughter and when she and her partner announce that she’s pregnant via IVF (in vitro fertilization), even Golde gets excited and Hodel’s valuation within the family is restored. Golde is happy to tell her friends that she’s “progressive,” accepting her daughter and her partner, which raises her valuation in the community that much further.
Chava is a strong-minded civil rights worker for an NGO in the Middle East. Her parents are both proud of her and worried at the same time. She has to hide her religious faith and be careful to not run afoul of the strict laws of the country she’s in. While teaching a small group of women how to read, Chava is arrested and imprisoned by a group of revolutionaries. Her entire family fears for her safety but they’re afraid to ask anyone for help because being a Jew in a Muslim state is itself an almost certain death sentence. So, while the family loves Chava, she sits in the prison, alone, abused, and feeling as though she is now worth nothing to no one.
In the story told on Broadway, there are two other young daughters mentioned but their roles are mitigated because of their youth. In the original set of tales of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, there are a total of six daughters in the first set of stories with a seventh unnamed daughter referenced. Large families have a unique valuation in that they are not only family, but because of their size, they also create their own community. Within the family, younger members struggle to raise their valuation to that of their elder siblings. One can easily imagine the challenge that Beilke, Shprintze, and Taybele face in a contemporary society where large families are often regarded with a lower valuation because of the extra resources they require. Fortunately, Golde makes more than enough to provide adequately for all of them, but one can imagine that as the younger girls struggle for both valuation and identity within the family, Tevye’s worries are not lessened as the young women come of age. Perhaps one comes out as trans. Another might be hypersexual. The sixth could well be a skilled gamer girl who no one else in her family understands at all, but among her online peers, she’s a deity.
Every family experiences these fluctuating rates of valuation as work comes and goes, finances go up and down, children grow, rebel, and change, frequently going in directions opposite of what their parents might wish. If divorce and remarriage happen within a family, the valuations become more dramatic and change depending on who is with which parent. What we ultimately find is that valuation within a family is never static and keeping one’s value high while remaining true to one’s self can be as precarious as… a fiddler on the roof.
Families Are Not Perfect
While the stories of Tevye and his family make for enjoyable musical theater, we in the real world know that families are often a lot messier than what is shown in Sholem Aleichem’s stories. While one always hopes that families are a place where everyone is valued and love, reality paints a very different picture.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into sharp focus as being forced to stay home and quarantine within family groups has shown all the dysfunctional cracks in the family system. While it’s still too early for hard numbers, anecdotally, domestic abuse cases have risen globally, as much as 100% in some places. Gender-based violence is up. Violence against black women is up. Violence against trans people has increased significantly. Elder abuse appears to be increasing. The list goes on and on for every category one might check. What this tells us is that under the pressure of the pandemic, our valuation of family members, regardless of age or family position, has plummeted. One does not harm those they value.
Even before the pandemic, however, there was a lot of criticism to be leveled at the general family construction and how enforced roles value or devalue individuals within the family. Valuation within the family unit hinges on equality. The instant one member of the family assumes a dominant role where they make decisions affecting other family members without their input, inequality is introduced. Yes, in certain situations, such as those involving non-verbal children, such authoritarianism is appropriate and caregivers are always responsible for the safety and well-being of younger and developmentally challenged family members. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement at every stage of familial life.
One primary area of improvement is in how families are assembled in the first place. In Tevye’s 19th-century Russia, and many other places around the world, the family wasn’t a choice. One’s family was assigned. Someone else made the decision who would marry whom. History is full of examples where marriage was a means of creating political allies, an arrangement made of expediency with little, if any, input on the part of those betrothed. While people in more industrialized nations find such an approach antiquated, enforced expectations of gender, class, and/or racial pairings that are still common in most places are just as damaging.
In 1995, Martha Fineman made an argument for a very different structure in her book, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies. She disagrees with state and religious definitions of marriage, saying they have neither the right nor the responsibility to participate in the conversation. Fineman also challenges the concept of “family values,” and the ways in which society devalues single-parent families or children born to unmarried families. Instead, Fineman favors defining family in terms of a mother/child dyad in place of the current gendered male/female union. Families, by her definition, are nongendered and she uses the terms Mother and Child somewhat as placeholders. “Mothers” are any adult who assumes caretaking responsibilities. The “child” is any person in the family who requires caretaking, regardless of age or circumstance. So, a family with equitable value distribution might consist of multiple “mothers” sharing the caregiving and economic responsibilities for “children” ranging in age from newborn to centenarians.
Fineman’s concept builds off Mill’s philosophy of a contract-based system where one chooses the family construct that best suits them. The problem, as Mill identified and Fineman and others bring to sharper contrast, is that such choices are not equitable if the social structures behind them are not equitable. Traditional gendered social structures create unequal opportunities for boys and girls from the outset and continue that inequality into adulthood by paying women less and denigrating the roles they play in society. Women have access to fewer social services and support structures. Against that backdrop, creating equity within the family structure is challenging at best and at times impossible.
For example, using my own family situation as a reference, because Kat and I are not married in the manner in which the state of Indiana prescribes marriage, there are limits to what each of us can do for each other and for our family. In the event of a medical emergency, we can neither one make life-critical decisions for the other. If either of the kids has needs that require a legal parental signature, I can’t be the one to sign. Our incomes are considered wholly separate, so we had to take steps with our bank to make sure we each have access to the other’s accounts when necessary. The state still sees Kat as a single parent and taxes her accordingly. Because so much of the governmental system propping up our social structure presumes a patriarchal-dominant gender-based family structure, which is inherently unequal, any attempt to create a more equitable situation is thwarted by those external realities.
Creating an equitable and safe family structure is also challenged by laws regarding parenting and the needs of children. Children, in most cases, don’t get to choose which family they are born into. Anyone capable of having children is allowed to be a parent unless proven unfit and the choices those parents make, fair or not, inevitably affect the children. If the parents choose to create a gender-based family, the children may find themselves lacking the same choice available as a child in a non-gendered family might have. Only when parents are proven to present a clear and present danger to the children in their care is there any intervention and even then the children themselves are rarely consulted in the decisions made, regardless of their age or knowledge of alternatives.
That children are initially wholly dependent on parents has set the stage for abuse not only from within the family but through social systems as well. The concept of acting in the “best interest” of the child is susceptible to biases based on class, race, and sexual orientation. Ian Shapiro’s 1999 book Democratic Justice makes a tenuous case for “basic interest,” creating a line below which no child is allowed to slip, but even that is open to the question of what forms of equality best serve a child.
Centuries of unequal family and social structure make it exceedingly difficult to establish an environment where everyone in the family receives a just and fair valuation without bias or judgment. For all the discussions taking place and the various philosophical viewpoints, the needle has hardly moved toward creating balanced, equitable families within any contemporary culture.
Something Stronger Than Blood
Since at least the 12th century, there has been this concept floating around that the familial ties created through procreation, being “blood kin,” holds both a greater bond and responsibility than any other relationship. While having a close biological connection is nice, history has shown time after time that it’s not a reliable way of forming a functional, loving family where everyone’s talents are celebrated, and members are valued. In fact, being biologically related to someone is practically meaningless if one is not valued by all the members of that family.
Members of a chosen family are not a guarantee, either. One might argue that Jesus chose his family, carefully picking out the ones he could trust, who would love and share the love. Yet, when it came down to crunch time, one betrayed him and several of the others denied knowing him. Those who were left ran and hid. Where is the value in a family like that? If someone like Jesus can’t build a reliable family unit, who can?
I am convinced that there is not a one-size-fits-all model of the perfect family where everyone is valued equitably and sufficiently. Traditionalists, social constructivists, idealists, and egalitarians all have ideas of merit that are worth some consideration, but they also have flaws that open the doors to abuse, coercion, and restraint. Family models are also limited by well-meaning but misguided laws, social norms, and dominant stereotypes that make it difficult if not impossible to develop a non-gendered, non-traditional family. There is a lot within and external to the family working against individual valuation.
What that means, though, is that the field is wide open to explore, try what seems to fit for you, your partners, and any dependents you might have, regardless of their physical age. You are free to test the waters, try something you’ve not heard of anyone else trying, and see if it works without the stigma of failure if the relationships are short-lived. One of the options worth considering is that the family into which one is born is not necessarily the family one carries forward through life. Perhaps, families have seasons and like seasons, they change dramatically to match our needs for growth and support, hibernation, and healing.
I know that I love my family as it currently exists. We’re about as non-traditional as one can find and that works perfectly for us. Yet, I also know that it has to change. As the kids get older, there is less we’re able to provide them. As they go off in search of a better family unit, they’re not obligated to maintain any ties with us if doing so does not serve their needs. We will still love them, we will still want the best for them, but we cannot claim to love them and at the same time constrain them to remain within the realm of our valuation system.
Families value individual lives more than any other entity in our society. They are wonderful and frightening all at the same time. No two are the same, and it’s quite probable that no two should be. We must establish and maintain the worth within our own family to make it the best and leave others to do the same.
We Need Your Help
We’ve hit a snag and desperately need your help more than ever. Specifically, sending charles back to school isn’t going smoothly as his request for financial aid was declined. That means if he goes back to school, everything has to come out of his own pocket. Everything. Total cost: about $7,000 per semester at least for the first two semesters. After that, we’ll have to re-evaluate. That’s not going to happen on what little charles makes.
We’ve changed donation methods, for now, to hopefully make it a little easier and more transparent. You can pay directly through PayPal using either a credit card or your own PayPal account. With this new delay, charles’ target for starting classes is now Fall ‘22. That gives us roughly a year to come up with the funds. If you listen to these podcasts, if you enjoy what charles writes, perhaps you see the value in donating, maybe even on a monthly basis rather than trying to do a lot all at once.
We would also appreciate you helping us spread the word about these podcasts. charles puts a lot of work into each one and annoys the family to no small end when he’s recording them. Growing our audience increases the opportunity to meet our goals.
Whether you donate today or not, thank you for listening and/or reading. We appreciate you being here.