The Myth of Family Bonds

My reading of The Fountainhead was has been the catalyst for some real thinking about what Rand describes as rational thought. This, I would suspect, as opposed to “irrational repetition.” Rand further compares those who create to those whom she calls “secondhanders” – those who simply “borrow” and parrot that which has come before. This concept, I think, comes with a caveat.


There is nothing new under the sun. Roark, the architect, designs in a new way – in a way that has not been seen before. His medium, however, is a building. They still have roofs, joists, studs, floors and foundations. This past material and its geometry is the bedrock upon which Roark builds. Roark takes the common elements, shakes them about, imagines them in another way, and creates something new. My point: new is not created in a vacuum. New arises out of novel configurations of that which is already present.

Two other examples of creativity that arises out of its antecedents, before I narrow down to my topic: The July 2001 Esquire Magazine has a feature called, “Ten Men: Inspiring Profiles of Extraordinary Lives.” I had one article in mind, and noticed I had a page turned back, giving me my second, brief example. In an article on Ferran Andria, arguably the best chef alive, Ferran is discussing the process of creating new dishes (he’s the guy who invented “clouds,” by the bye, for those of you into gastronomy) “Anarchy is fine but only after logic.” Which we might translate, “Feel free to change anything, but know why you are changing it.”

The other story is about Josef Penninger, an amazing cell biologist. He has a string of miraculous successes after his name and he’s only 36. AND, he works in Toronto, at Amigen. You should read the article, but here’s a quote:

“People already knew that OPGL had something to do with bone loss, but it was only one of about thirty proteins that kept showing up in experiments. In science, this is like being stuck in the middle of an answer. You’re surrounded by clues, but you’re seeing the same thing and the picture won’t shift. You’re staring so hard, you can’t even blink. Then someone like Josef comes along. He peers over your shoulder and says, Hey, why not try it like this? He reaches back to all that space in his head. He takes the glass dome full of snow and gives it a shake. When the snow settles, the village is moved fifty miles up the road. It’s the wet dream of science. No extra steps, no more staring until you’re asleep with your eyes open. Scientists wait a lifetime for a moment like this. Josef has about two a year. When it’s coming, the tips of his fingers tingle.” (Esquire, 7/01, pg. 73)

What if shaking the snow scene was possible (if difficult – very, very difficult) for anyone who is willing to reach in, grab the snow scene, and shake? (I have faith that all people are capable of this. I am also a realist and know that 5% will actually do it. The neat (or terrifying) question is this: anyone can, but will YOU?)

After I listened to Rand’s book, with all of the illustrations re. the difference between swallowing whole society’s dictates, not rocking the boat, behaving, fitting in – and Roark, being Roark, being a creator. And I was wrapping up the Dichotomies series. What next?

This week’s point: The Myth of Family Bonds

If you read my “deconstruction articles,” you’ll know that I am suggesting that many of the beliefs we operate under were drilled into our heads by our parents and our culture. Last week, I included the description of the perfect housewife from the 1955 magazine. We look at that way of being today, and go, “You have got to be kidding me!!” The piece we want to remember, however, it that this article would have been greeted with joy by both men and women in 1955. This was the norm of the day, and is no different than the “Housekeeping for Busy Executives” or “How to Fit an Orgasm into Your Workday” articles festooning Cosmo today.

My point? The 1955 Perfect Housewife, the “Father Knows Best” show, “Ozzie and Harriet” – all were real. That’s the way it was assumed that the world worked way back then. Dad slew the dragon, mom cooked the dragon, while polishing his shoes and drawing his bath. Mom was seen as being subservient to dad. Not for any real reason – just because “we always did it like that.” Made dad feel like a real man. Lacking personal strength, dad pretended to have power over someone else. Given the limited opportunities for women, it did seem to “make sense.” Indeed we all believed it, until we didn’t. Yet, vestiges of this belief remain.

A thirty-something woman started therapy last week. She has 4 kids under 10, and co-owns a business or two with her husband. She’s stressed, exhausted, sick. Shoulders drooping and rolled over. (see Bodywork section on this!) She told me that this was what was expected of her, and that she also look after her parents and that she do it all with a smile on her face.

I opined that maybe their lifestyle was killing her, killing her husband. She retorted, “But what can I do? If I don’t do this, who will? (Her real thought – the world will come to an end.) We need to work really hard for 15 more years. Then we can relax.”

I replied, “If you live that long.”

I then asked her, “Do you want your daughters to do what you are doing when they grow up?” Horror, absolute horror, crossed her face. “No!!” she yelled. “How will this not happen?” She replied, “I tell them to be their own people.” I said, “Kids learn some of what they are told, but mostly learn from what they see actually being done. You’re teaching your daughters how act when they grow up. You’re teaching your sons what to expect from a woman.” Quietly, she said, “No damn way.”

This week, she walked in and declared that she and her husband talked, re-examined their life and what they were doing to themselves, and are in the process of selling their businesses and finding other, regular work. They are planning a relaxing trip and are looking at other ways to balance the household workload. What is amazing here is how quickly she not only “got” what I was saying, but also has begun to implement another way of being, despite thinking, one week earlier, that she “couldn’t” change anything.

As I’ve said, the main contents of our heads, the pieces that determine much of our behaviour, are old. These understandings come from our infancy and childhood, and come from watching our parents parent us. They come from our tribes, and our tribes include the TV shows we watched, the products that were advertised.

We were not taught things that are “true,” indeed, not much is true. We were taught things that keep us in line, loyal to tribal beliefs, and compliant and quiet. Because we were kids, all of this input simply went in, and was not evaluated. Prior to the age of 12 or so, kids are incapable of abstract reasoning. Beliefs, imbedded in this way, are not examined. They are swallowed whole.

So, as to today’s point, The Myth of Family Bonds. The myth goes as follows: Dad is the wise, all-knowing supporter of the family. Mom provides loving nurturance and guidance. The kids are scrubbed and pressed, polite, and do what they are told. They’re happy-go-lucky, mature for their ages, and want to make their parents both happy and proud. This relationship is to continue until death. No one is supposed to grow out of their role. Thus, someone, age 50 can still act like a kid (needy and obedient) in relationship to their 70-year-old parents, while attempting to control the behaviours of their 30-year-old “children.” In therapy terms, this is known as enmeshment.

Now, all of this may or may not be “true” in your family of origin, or as you relate to your children.

Trouble comes when someone decides not to play his or her role “right.” What happens is this: I go into my head. In there is the cultural stereotype of “how families ought to be,” and then there’s “my family.” I compare my family to the stereotype, and find a lack in my family member – but the lack is based upon comparison to an unexamined stereotype. Most people blame and judge the people involved. Seldom do they question the stereotype.

A client was in today. She was describing her tumultuous relationship with her father. He has always criticized her, she stated, never supported her, and then rubbed her nose in it when she failed. She described a time when her apartment caught fire. Her father said, “I always told you not to smoke.” My client indicted that she wanted him to support her, tell her everything would be all right, and buy her a new couch. (In other words, to fit the cultural stereotype – to do what Robert Young would have done.) He did none of this. Then she made the telling comment: “Everybody else has parents that support and love him or her. That’s what parents are supposed to do!”

I pointed out her appeal to the stereotype, and said that even if everybody else had parents that were perfect, she didn’t. And, I added, no one has perfect parents. She needed to let go of the stereotype and deal with the father she actually has. I asked her to consider: if her parents were simply another 70-year-old couple, would she hang out with them? She replied: “Yes to my mom. I’d never spend a minute with my dad.” I replied, “Good. Go for it.”

She wondered, then, if she didn’t “owe” her parents something for them bringing her up. I demurred. Her parents, at some level, chose to have her. A logical purpose, as parents, was to create independent people who stand on their own two feet. That they attempted to keep their kids dependent on them (“You should always come home to daddy for advice . . .”) is to attempt to trap and manipulate their kids into a life-long servitude, as opposed to freeing them by teaching them independent thought (as Rand returns, yet again! J )

My client does owe a debt, though. The “debt” is to her kids or to those she teaches. She is required to feed and clothe and house them, and, to perfectly fulfill the debt, to teach them to be independent, by the example of her own independence. Then, she would choose to teach her “children” the obligation of teaching others. The only way to pay back a kindness is to extend it to others. Otherwise, it’s mutual masturbation.

Part of this is understanding that those around us are grown ups – they are whom they are, not whom we want them to be. The pictures we have in our heads, which always come out as, “This is the way it should or ought to be,” are deadly. Let’s say I invite people to my 50th birthday party. I have, really two choices. I can invite people I care about, provide refreshments, and accept who they are and how they act, because these are the people I want to be with (even if they talk to trees . . .) Or, I can have a picture in my head about how they are supposed to behave, and get all over them when they don’t do it “my way.” I have a hidden agenda or set of rules about how it “should be,” and I judge them wrong for not knowing or following my picture. This latter approach causes a huge mess.

If I really want my nearest and dearest to “behave according to my rules,” then I need to get over thinking my rules are universals. I therefore need to call my nearest and dearest and say, “I’m having a party. Here is what you are to wear, here is how you are to behave. I want you to be on time, hands washed, acting polite and cheery, not make a mess, never speak out of turn, and leave when I tell you to. Now, are you willing to come to my party and obey my rules?” Most of us (thank god) would never make such a call. Many of us, (too bad) think they have the unspoken right to expect such behaviour, even though they are unwilling to ask for it, knowing in advance the reaction they likely would get.

Families are a nice way to bring helpless kids to full maturity. That’s their role. At that point, kids need to stand on their own two feet and go form new families, while the former parents find another purpose. Raise ’em well and set them free. If you like them, hang out with them, adult to adult. You owe no one anything and certainly not life long servitude and deference. Your obligation is of a different sort – to set another generation free, as you have been freed. Circles of dependence never work. As Carl Whitaker put it, the Family is a crucible, and out of the mix come independent people of vision and courage. It is not a morass from which there is no escape. Unless you choose to make it so.

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