Extended Family

(This was mostly written last week but I didn’t have time to post it from the road. Today’s snow emergency gives me the time to finish it.)

We’ve been here all week due to the death of my father-in-law Thanksgiving night. The funeral was yesterday, a week after he passed. It was a great celebration of a life well lived by a man who spent time with his children and grandchildren and gave abundantly of himself to a wide variety of community projects. The funeral was followed by a noisy and warm family gathering. Now it is quiet. As I write this, my mother-in-law and brother-in-law are napping, my sister-in-law is watching TV, the other set of grandchildren have headed home or are out shopping. My daughter is napping in the motel. My husband, son, son-in-law and I are all sitting in the living room playing games on our laptops. I decided this was the time to write the blog I’ve been thinking about all week.

I’m not sorry I came here for the whole week. It is important to honor a family you have been part of for nearly forty years. At the same time, it was a hard thing to do. The air travel arrangements for five people were an expensive mess. We traveled on four different itineraries. Three of us had to change travel plans made after the “death is imminent” call. Commitments that seemed unbreakable in the uncertainty of “sometime soon” were sacrificed in the face of the certainty of death. It is a very bad time to be away from work, this close to the end of the semester. I made arrangements to reschedule or plan alternate activities for my classes and I’ve done a lot of work via remote access. But I still care about my work obligations and worried that missing a whole week of classes is somehow too much for an indirect relation like a father-in-law. My son took a whole week away from his classes in grad school. I could not help but think about all the jokes we make about the mortality rate of grandparents, especially just before or after Thanksgiving break.

I did not go to the funerals of any of my own grandparents. The circumstances of each was different, but the relative estrangement of my parents from their own parents, complex and delayed funeral arrangements, coupled with the difficulty and expense of travel made my attendance seem optional to them. I remember and still regret my non-attendance at the last one, the funeral for the grandmother I liked best. I had small children, was in debt and could not afford to fly the whole family out, had just talked to her by phone earlier in the week, and knew the family would not blame me. But I realized too late it hurt anyway, especially because I was the only grandchild missing. A Black friend from a low income dysfunctional family was deeply shocked and scandalized when she found out I had not gone to my grandmother’s funeral. “Were you close?” is the question we often ask when hearing of a grandparent’s death. When I tried to explain to my friend that I’d never seen my grandmother much even as a child, she just said, “But it is your grandmother!”

Here’s where the work and sociology part comes in. We academics have careers that are very flexible in many ways. But we relate to a national job market and typically live far away from our families of origin. We are rootless nomads, and many of us do not even realize how peculiar this is. There are a fair number of ethnographies written about working class folks who live within a few miles of their extended families as if they are some sort of backward exotics worthy of anthropological notice. There are not many ethnographies about the family structures of the nomadic academic and business classes, and it is my impression that many sociologists think this is what “normal” families are like. Many of us were reared in the same kind of rootless placeless families as we are creating. There are deep costs we pay, and our children pay, for this lifestyle. Even if you don’t view the effects as “costs,” there are definitely huge impacts on people’s understandings of what human relationships are about. For one thing, we believe that a sign of having a significant commitment to the academic life is that one is a rootless cosmopolitan who is willing to live anywhere the intellectual climate is good. And we know that schools that “hire their own” and give preference to people who don’t want to move tend to become inbred and parochial intellectual backwaters. I think it is true that the mobility of the professorate is good for science. But what is good for science is not good for families or people.

Those of us in the higher occupational categories give a very high priority to jobs and job advancement over other values. There are other value systems. I remember hearing my husband’s grandfather complain about one of his sons (one of my husband’s uncles, a business executive) that he spent too much time working and did not take his son fishing. The working-class uncles got more esteem from the older man for face time with children than for the money they made. My father-in-law did not go to college. He worked his way up into management from the shop floor, then lost place in a corporate shuffle and finished his career in a variety of lower-level jobs. I know my father-in-law spent a lot of time with his sons, and both my husband and brother-in-law spent a lot of time with their children, not in a “look at me, I’m violating gender roles” way, but in a “this is what fathers do” way. There is a traditional “family man” masculinity that involves active hands-on time with children and caring treatment of wives and mothers that often seems invisible in rhetoric about gender roles and family life, although it shows up periodically in the research literature, often to the surprise of the sociologist authors who report that “feminist” attitudes are not well correlated with actual patterns of household activities (basically because working-class people on average have less feminist attitudes and more gender-egalitarian household task allocations than professionals).

Professionals also have jobs that require us to do things that cannot be done by others and cannot be deferred until later. We are much more able to respond to the needs of kin or life emergencies in the summer and during breaks than in the middle of the school term. Our jobs are a central part of our lives and our identities. This, coupled with our distance from extended families, leads us to have a high proportion of our close significant relations tied to work rather than neighborhood or family. I was talking with a colleague about her research on how these patterns put people like us at a significant disadvantage under certain kinds of major life challenges. (I’m not going to say more because I don’t want to scoop her as-yet unpublished research. But it is going to be a blockbuster when it comes out.)

More and more graduate students come from academic families where our nomadic lifestyle is the norm. If your extended family is already scattered all over the country (or globe), you have no choice anyway. Other people come from bad families they are happy to be far from. (My own thin relation with my grandparents was due to divorce and abuse when my parents were children.)  But if you come from a good family that has a place, one of the choices you face as an academic is whether to try to live closer to that family, even if it puts you in a less good place than you’d like to be otherwise, and even if it means you may not be able to live as an academic. Geographic choices that seem manageable when you are young and childless often become more painful when you have children who don’t know their grandparents, or your parents age. Monday, 36 hours after finally getting us all back from the delayed flights from the funeral, I got word that my mother had been hospitalized with unexplained bleeding. Fortunately the diagnosis points to a relatively mild problem and is not immediately threatening. But I am sick to report that one of my first thoughts was, “Oh no. I can’t miss any more class. I just can’t.”

The work-family choices are not just about caring for small children. They are about the structure of your whole life. If you think this is just a “personal issue” and not a “professional issue,” then you should realize you’ve said something about yourself. Or perhaps about your family.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

3 thoughts on “Extended Family”

  1. I’m sorry for your family’s loss, and I’m glad you were able to spend some time with your loved ones even in such a busy time of the semester! As a grad student whose life currently hangs in (geographic) limbo while waiting for the job market to sort things out, I really appreciate this post and have been thinking about it a lot. Generations of my family are all from one small area. As my partner and I get older and realize we want children (although not until I get a job and get some of this grad school debt under control), I’ve been thinking more about where and how we’re going to plant roots, while also realizing it is SO important for me to have roots someplace. Hearing you articulate some of these same feelings from such a different stage in your career means a lot.

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