I experience flashes of poetry, but I was assigned an unreliable muse in the heretofore, alas. My moment of greatest poetic inspiration arrived when I was twelve or thirteen, on a trip across country in our fifteen-passenger Ford van. My mother devised a contest among us siblings to compose the best family cheer, and, motivated as I always have been by competition, I came up with these four immortal lines:
Get the baby, shut the door!
What’s for dinner? We want more!
Though we’re busy and sometimes mad,
The Frandsen family is really rad!
Needless to say, I won the competition.
I’ve been reading Ann Hulbert’s historical tome on popularized theories of modern parenting, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children. I’ve been trying to read it, that is: at 464 pages it’s perversely long, and since she suffers from the same glib prolixity that I do, I dislike her style rather violently in passages. Still, though, it’s been an interesting read, and it’s helped me realize anew how much of modern parenting practice and family ethos is timebound and local, despite persistent poles and problematics. So many of the things we did (my mother did, really) to make us feel like a family–family home evening, family prayer, family scripture study, family council, family devotional, family photo albums, family mission statements, family cheers, family hugs, family dinners, family vacations, family holiday rituals, family websites, family reunions, family letters, our family “school of the prophets,” family rules, and all the myriad items one finds in the “Random Sampler” section of the Ensign–are inextricably rooted in the technologies, social formations, and emotional structures of a modern world.
The point had been driven home for me several years ago, when I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting on “The Eternal Principle of Family Home Evening.” I was confounded by the assignment. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy facilitating FHE, I do so (almost) every week, and I think there’s great (and inspired) value in the church’s recent re-emphasis of the practice. But try as I might, I can’t imagine Adam and Eve, or Abraham and Sarah, or Mary and Joseph, implementing anything like FHE with their children in anything like the way we do it with ours. Because I’m cursed with an orderly mind, disliking unaccountable inconsistency, this bothered me: if family structure is eternal, why do we need so many supporting ideological and material apparatuses in the present day? FHE and all the other technologies of the modern LDS family–and here I use “technology” in the sense of the Greek techne, an applied skill or practice–seemed like so many manifestations of the “anxious family,” a category that has generated reams of recent academic-political-popular analysis of our artificial attempts to bolster a moribund social institution.
Recently I’ve been rethinking things, though. I think it’s a mistake to see the historical trajectory of the family as a tragic decline from a real, robust, naturalized social formation to a culturally residual, beleaguered, artificial, anxiety-ridden relic. The family has never existed as an utterly “natural” arrangement: in my particular area of expertise, the sixteenth century, for example, the family structure was buttressed with structural and cultural supports that included ideologies of blood-line and purity, patronymic and patrilineal technologies like family liveries and family names, and structural instruments like dowry, jointure and primogeniture. The sixteenth-century family was just as “artificial” as the twenty-first century LDS family, and although it was quite different in form and function, it nevertheless performed some of the same crucial work that my family did and does. Knowing this, I’m less bothered by the realization that FHE and its cognates aren’t eternal principles, because I can see how, as inspired programs (as I believe them to be), they adapt to the present day an institution God has chosen to bear the weight of the sacred sealing ordinance.
So I’m going to do my best to install in my family the parade of family technologies that my own mother so ably installed in hers. Maybe instead having my children recite a family cheer in the van, though, I’ll have my children write family sonnets to be published on our family blog. Any takers?