Two days ago, one of my daughters asked me why I do far more than I should for our home and family, and if I was enabling dependency with this need to do things for others. My answer was short and almost dismissive. “In our family we do things for each other,” I said. But, of course, she pushed. “You need to ask yourself if you give others the space to do what they should be doing, too,” she remarked.
This conversation had begun when my husband, who was not at home, called me to say he was craving Indian food from a local restaurant. And when I said I preferred to eat leftovers, he asked if I could order his dinner for him through Doordash, since he didn’t have the app on his phone, and I responded with, “of course,” and proceeded to order his meal.
But during the discussion with my daughter, I knew I was missing something important. My daughter was right and she was wrong and I got to thinking about it. It’s about the word “our” and how it relates to the way we inhabit our roles within families and how we conceive of ourselves inside and outside the family entity.
Family — including the shifting forms of today’s family with more and more single mothers, gay and lesbian couples and unmarried partners and parents — sets roots and creates relationships with reciprocity. At an elemental level, we become a family, when we promise to take care of each other “in sickness and in health,” when we look out for each other, and when we bear a strong sense of responsibility and allegiance to each other.
The collective peace of a family depends on each individual’s happiness quotient within the unit. But that’s far too nebulous a goal. So, families often teeter on an emotional seesaw, sometimes up, sometimes down. Roles and responsibilities are in a constant state of flux, workloads outside the home increase or decrease, and feelings of affirmation and neglect drive attitudes to one another.
Yet, most Americans across different faiths and political beliefs believe family is important. In a national survey, conducted by Pew Research, when Americans were asked what makes their lives meaningful, 72 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats cited family as giving them “a sense of meaning.”
A sense of meaning has many subtleties, in my opinion. A healthy sense of self is driven by interactions and attachments, and the seduction of personal achievement and independence.
So, how does one maintain an independent identity within the framework of a composite? How do we reconcile the American values of independence and self-determinacy with the cultural (and immigrant) demands of family obligation and responsibility? For many young adults, this is a tough concept to come to terms with.
Recently, a family friend and her husband, went to Europe for 10 days and left behind a house, two dogs — one ailing — and a grandmother in her nineties for their two young adult children to manage. My children stayed the weekend in their house to help out and were flabbergasted with the amount of work involved in keeping the home and its residents functioning satisfactorily.
For those three days, my children got hands-on experience on what it means to give up parts of yourself when others depend on you and a healthy respect for my friend, who has been doing what she does for over 30 years, while working as an editor of an online publication.
My daughter sees the shared responsibilities of a family in strictly equitable terms. Everyone takes turns doing dishes and laundry, taking the trash out, walking the dogs, driving dependents to doctor’s appointments, paying bills, balancing the checkbook. But that’s not often how it works. Some do more than others in a particular space, and often due to expediency and most importantly, affection.
Ordering my husband’s dinner, the other night, was a trivial thing. Indeed, I could have told him hey, do it yourself, I’m busy, and he wouldn’t have thought any more about it. And, as I explained to my daughter, ordering a meal for her father required just a handful of clicks on the Doordash app, and I got to relax and watch him come home to a warm meal.
Furthermore, the privilege of being asked to help far outweighs the imbalance it appears to strike at. We rarely ask strangers to assist us. Most often, the person whom we depend on in casual moments of helplessness is the person we trust and rely on, too.
Even within the framework of family we journey alone. We have each other to talk with, argue, reason and record emotional moments, while battling a sense of precariousness, a sense that living by the rules, chasing goals and working hard may not be quite enough.
So, one way to reconcile hope and anxiety is to anticipate and avoid situations that create stress and to lift each other up by doing those small, trivial things for each other. And, true, my husband still doesn’t know how to order a meal on Doordash, but he makes a fine flourless Nutella cake.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan