Tight-Knit Extended Families Require Vision

There are only three types of families: 1) physically distant ones; 2) physically close, but emotionally distant ones; and 3) physically and emotionally close ones.

I realized this while sitting next to a man my age from Egan, Minnesota at a college swim meet recently. He was watching his son—along with his wife, brother, daughter, parents, and in-laws—a good freestyler at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. We talked swimming, college decision making, and Gopher football. The state cross-country meet was taking place on campus at the same time, so the GalPal and I had to take a shuttle bus to the pool from an overflow parking lot on the periphery of campus. The bus was filled with three generations of family cheerleaders too.

Physically distant families have to drive or fly for several hours to see one another. According to one writer I’ve recently read, in the U.S. at least, this family type predominates in urban centers on both the East and West coasts. My family is this type—mother and in-laws in two different states, aunt and uncle in a third, siblings in a fourth and fifth, cousins and nephews in a couple of others. Physically distant families may enjoy one another’s company, but they don’t see one another with enough regularity to truly know one another which compromises closeness.

Physically close, but emotionally distant families live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they don’t get together with any regularity due to unresolved conflicts and/or prioritizing work and material pursuits. Despite their proximity, everyone mostly prioritizes their own nuclear families in the same manner as physically distant ones.

Physically and emotionally close families not only live within a few minutes or hours of each other, but they prioritize getting together weekly or monthly. Minnesota may have a disproportionate number of tight-knit extended families.

Modern Family, the outstanding sitcom about a physically and emotionally close family is atypical because most families today are spread out over long distances. Which probably explains the show’s appeal. Viewers enjoy inserting themselves into that physically and emotionally close family not just because the writers make them funnier than our own family members, but because they’re an affectionate and loving community of mutual amusement and support.

My dad, like most post WWII execs, always took the promotions he received even when they required him to criss-cross the country. I wouldn’t have traded for anyone’s dad, but by choosing successively better jobs that paid more money, he sacrificed a physically and therefore emotionally close family because my siblings and I followed suit, deciding where to live based upon work opportunities, personal preferences, and other things besides physically proximity to one another.

Another variable in some physically distant families is eighteen year olds going away to college. Second Born, next in line in our fam, wants to go “out of state”. When asked why recently, she initially Rick Perryed (couldn’t answer), and then finally said, “The weather.” What are the odds of me having the first teen in the history of the world to base a life decision on weather patterns? Our family, like every other one, is a subculture. She’s simply following the lead of her parents, her cousins, and her older sissy. What would be surprising is if she wanted to stay close to home.

I plan on being more intentional than my dad about prioritizing family closeness. I can’t control where my daughters go to college, take jobs, or end up living, and I can’t control the fact that twenty percent of Americans move every year, but I’m hoping that living in one community for a record-length of time increases the odds of them settling down somewhere close. This is the only home they know. We are Pacific Northwesterners.

If all goes well, ten or twenty years from now, I’ll be just one of an extended family of crazies cheering wildly for a grandchild at a pool or piano recital somewhere nearby.

Modern Family

Modern Family is my family’s favorite television show. Only twenty-two minutes in length, it always garners guffaws. When we watch it separately and come back together we ritualistically recite our favorite lines from memory. Even though I’m older than Phil, I want to be him when I grow up.

A recent New York Times columnist’s deconstruction of it wasn’t too terribly illuminating.

I would have expected some slippage by now, but each episode is as tightly written and produced as the previous one. Wonder how many hilarious, heartwarming episodes they have queued up?

Like every hit show I suspect, MF’s success starts with the writing. But its success is also explained by three myths we happily embrace.

Myth one. Interpersonal family conflicts are resolved quickly and simply, mostly within twenty-two minutes. Pilot episode—gay son and his partner don’t feel accepted by the gay son’s dad. Throw in an international adoption, jab him a bit about his old-fashioned homophobia, and acceptance follows. MF provides a fantastical break from the complex, intractable conflicts that shape our lives.

Myth two. The three families live close to one another, enjoy one another’s company, and make time for one another. For most people, the phrase “extended family” is quite literal. Take me for example, my three siblings live in three different states, my mother in a fourth. Their closeness is endearing.

Myth three. Work is unrelated to wealth. This is great news for American viewers for whom fiscal responsibility doesn’t require sacrifice. MF is nearly as work-free an environment as Seinfeld’s apartment. Phil recently showed a house, but the housing correction hasn’t impacted his family’s lifestyle. All three families drive nice cars, live in very nice homes, and very rarely work. Magically, mortgages, car payments, and vacations all get paid for.

And of course for Pacific Northwest viewers like my family and me, the warm and sunny SoCal setting doesn’t hurt either.