I have left my children in Sri Lanka which means they’re down to zero parents now. But they’re not. They’re with two sets of grandparents and one set of great-grandparents and two maids and a cook and a driver and two guards that follow them while they pretend to walk down the street ‘by themselves’. They say it takes a village and we’ve got one.
We have a huge extended family because we’re Asian, servants are because we’re (collectively) rich, and the guards are because our beloved uncle was assassinated (and thus the extended family is in massive pain, which is perhaps the price for this closeness). This is my life and it’s a strange one, not a prescription or a recommendation. There’s this strange western idea that there must be one lifestyle for everyone and you must put it in a magazine (or blog, as the case may be). That’s not my point at all. This is just one data point among many, if you want to be scientific about it (which I think is a terrible way to think about family). It’s just my experience and how it connects to yours, well, you connect the dots.
Married With Children
When we first got married we were in the wedding car and my wife immediately called her parents. I said, “We’ve been married for 10 minutes! Can’t you spend time with me?” I didn’t get it and honestly couldn’t get it for years.
Before we had kids I wanted to live far from her family compound, where we could ‘be independent’, whatever that means. Her uncle, the late Dinesh, even gave us land to build a house in the city, but he counseled us not to. He said it was better to be close to family. I was stubborn as ever but for some reason we listened. And when we (somewhat unexpectedly) had children, I was so glad for his advice.
There are many reasons to live in multi-generational households, but the most important is the raising multiple generations. Two hands is just too few to raise up a child, four is barely adequate, and in truth you need a forest of fingers to clean all the butts and wipe all the tears and tickle all the tummies that bringing up a baby requires. And it goes two ways. The child raises up the family, especially the elders, who frankly lose their minds. If you think grandparents are indulgent, great-grandparents are incorrigible.
Last night, for example, my son slept with his 93-year old great-grandfather. This elder is well-respected man across the island, except in his own household. My boy peed the bed and the old man had to clean it up. Then my son demanded to wear the same pajamas, so the old man washed them and put them in the microwave, because he never says no to the child. He certainly wasn’t like that to his children. That’s great-grandparents for ya. He’s lucky he didn’t burn the house down.
If you think about it, cleaning up your progeny’s piss at 2 AM is the best we can hope for. For a parent that needs to get to work this is just a chore, but for a great-grandparent it’s a blessing. And so more nights than not, my children bless other people’s homes. Unless I’m about to leave or something, they’re often not there. The kids sleep with with their grands, their great-grands, some nights I don’t even remember where they are. When they’re home, they refuse to sleep in their own rooms and I end up clinging to some back-aching sliver of my own bed while they sprawl wherever they want. I was raised in America to be independent but now I’ve completely given up. And I like it.
The nuclear family was a stupid experiment and it’s exploded everywhere. It’s expensive, exhausting, and simply doesn’t work. The idea that you shouldn’t burden your family has led to people breaking up their family out of some feigned politeness which actually makes everyone miserable. As I mentioned, one generations burden is another one’s blessing, so better to keep the generations together. It is a blessing to be burdened by the people you love. Especially for old people it gives you something to do, without which your body gives up.
That’s how we live in Sri Lanka, but it changed when my wife started studying at Oxford and we carted the family along. Suddenly we were down to two parents, which I discovered is too little by a lot. Without school to keep them for most of the day it would have been impossible. Even then, that meant our kids were somewhere else most of the day, being raised by some bureaucratic approximation of a culture and whatever their idiot peers were doing. Personally, I found myself getting more irritated with the children, because how many times do I need to tell you to put shoes on? In Sri Lanka we A) don’t wear shoes and B) they can always go to another house if they don’t like the service at this one. We had the multi-generational release valve which was gone.
As an another example, last week (back in Sri Lanka) I was day drinking with my father-in-law and wanted to take a nap. We both did. I told the boy I couldn’t make Legos and he just had to tell with it and he screamed at me. This would have led to a fight in England, but in Sri Lanka he just called his grandfather, and that man left his nap to play with the boy. Back home there’s always some outlet to relieve the pressure within the household. In England it was just us, and the pressure could build up.
If two parents is too little, one is just impossible. I don’t get it. On the terrible week Din Anna was killed, my wife left on the next flight. Both kids had scarlet fever and I had to get medicine, but I simply couldn’t. How could I leave the children and cycle to the four pharmacies required to find antibiotics in post-apocalyptic England? Luckily the neighbor kid came over, but otherwise I don’t know what I would have done. One parent is an answer to a math problem that’s just wrong, and we somehow expect people to solve it every day. It doesn’t compute.
The Fractional Family
What I notice in the West is that all the stuff you used to get from family for free becomes commodities. The school becomes childcare, and childminders become grandparents, and grandparents get put in a care home somewhere. Everything becomes a fractional service shared across a community, which makes sense, but then some fucker somewhere has to become a billionaire so it becomes wildly expensive. This is the capitalist concept of efficiency, which isn’t efficient at all, because profit.
It actually costs more money to separate families and communities and fractionalize their service across a market, but this is called efficient because it makes numbers on a chart somewhere. This capitalist imperative then becomes enshrined in the culture and in peoples own hearts. People act like you’ve failed if you don’t move out and become a capitalist cog at age 18. You should move out, pay your own rent, make your own microwave dinners, buy your own consumer goods, buy your own car, and buy ‘your own’ objects. Meanwhile the children of the truly rich don’t pay for anything and pretend like they’re working hard through vanity projects and taking meetings occasionally. It’s all a wild inefficiency which gives the illusion of wealth in the sense that Bill Gates walking into a bar makes everyone millionaires. It’s the tyranny of averages, which the average person is underwater.
The fact is that the traditional economic unit is the household and resources are much more efficiently shared than privately owned. Instead, people in the west effectively have to be millionaires to have all the time, transportation, space, and resources they need, and millionaires waste most of that because they can’t fully utilize it.
The sheer wastefulness makes people in these societies seem rich (on paper, on average), but are they really living? All the money is just passing through them while the time inevitably drips away. Children get old and grandparents die and then what does it mean? You were independent in the sense that you paid for everything, great, but does anybody sit on their deathbed thinking this? Isn’t family and relationships all that matters in the end? That dreaded ‘dependence’ was actually a blessing and too many people only realize it once they’re on the way out.
When it comes to parenting, people work away from the home to pay for childcare, leaving both parent and caregiver separated from their own children. The only person who benefits is some private equity lord who isn’t seeing their children either. Is this the optimal state of the capitalist family, really? Where everything is a paid relationship? As the late Bobby Kennedy said, GDP measures everything except that which makes life worth living.
The Unreliable Narrator
However, I have wound myself into a contradiction here, because we also pay for childcare. As I mentioned, we have extended family because we’re ‘Asian’, but servants because we’re rich. Some of our servants are daily, but some live far away from their families. It’s not like the ‘Asian’ model is somehow egalitarian. It’s also built on hierarchies, where people have servants in a fundamentally feudal relationship. And it’s older than that, really.
I think of the kinda documentary Monkey Kingdom, filmed in Polonnaruwa, among, well, read the title. In that you can see childcare hierarchies among our rilawa cousins, wherein the lower-status monkeys have to care for higher status babies, and get crawled all over by them. This hierarchy is quite visible in Sri Lanka, where maids are still called the girl well into their greying years.
The whole concept of servants is looked down on by westerners, but I think they just don’t like looking directly at it. Westerners have a whole web of servants across the globe but act holier than thou because they don’t have any in their homes. They still have people cutting their chicken and stitching their clothes and delivering and cleaning up after them, they just don’t see them. Their servants are hidden in warehouses and behind apps and corporations. In many ways this is worse because they don’t even have a feudal relationship (which is still a relationship). They have no relationship at all with the people who do their work, they’re just atomized souls ground into interchangeable commodities, often overseas.
I digress but it’s a necessary digression, because beyond all the ‘free’ family that cares for family, there are inevitably paid people, whether in a capitalist society or not. It’s not just one or two people aren’t enough to raise a child, even one or two generations are inadequate. You have to extend beyond even the family to raise a child. In this the rich have great advantages because they can cannibalize other families, whether feudally or commercially.
In western culture the premise seems to be that we’ll destroy the family, but out of these destroyed families, we’ll reassemble a paid family which will be better and more efficient and give individuals more freedom. The promise is that capitalist efficiency will provide servants-as-a-service, and then you can fulfill yourself through work rather than being burdened with this annoying family thing. In Diet Capitalism (ie, social democracy) the idea is that you’ll pay taxes to reassemble the family as shared services, which also enable you to continue working. Both the capitalist and socialist model require workers to be working and neither countenances people getting day-drunk and playing with children instead. Both have a concept of productivity, which necessarily conflicts with reproductivity, an act assigned zero value despite being the only fundamentally creative thing we do.
This inherent conflict between production and reproduction isn’t actually resolved anywhere, and instead plays out inside peoples homes, with households thinking that it’s their fault. But it’s not their fault. This is a contradiction within the system and shouldn’t necessarily break up your marriage or anything. But it does, because people don’t think systemically, and anyways, it doesn’t make you any less pissed off when things fall apart.
I find thinking about how the contradictions of societies play out within the family fascinating, but I didn’t make these choices. This is why I say there’s not prescription or recommendation here. I just ended up here, I didn’t plan anything (including having children, lol). I live at a weird nexus of East and West, old and new, feudal and capitalist and I have the time and leisure to think about it (because someone else has the kids!). What I can see from here is that life is tremendously easier if you raise children with family and much more so if you have paid ‘family’, but does this system scale or apply to anybody else? I don’t know. Gods be with you, do your best, good luck.
All I know is that, as a math problem, one person is too little to raise a child, two is still too little, and honestly I think you need dozens spread both across a family and without. How these dozens should be configured is unknown and I don’t think there’s one answer for that. Humanity had and always had lots of different family structures and the idea that there’s one ‘scientifically’ optimal-model is, I think, a big part of the problem. Even worse is that the optimal-model defaults to the nuclear family, which was a 20th century experiment that has literally blown up. But as everything falls apart this century I think the most important thing to put back together is the family. And you definitely need more pieces than two, that I’m sure of.