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CULTURAL FORCES CHIPPING AWAY AT FAMILIES

Plain as a pumpkin and firmly rooted as a stalk of sweet corn, Mary Pipher has a rare blend of common sense and poetry, an ability to reveal simple truths through powerful stories.

Pipher's rich parables don't fit on bumper stickers, but they're worth considering in these times of stress and isolation.A Corn Belt psychologist who made us feel the pain of America's teenage girls in her best-selling "Reviving Ophelia," Pipher now holds her mirror up to the cultural forces that are grinding away at entire families.

Her new book, "The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families" (Putnam, $24.95), includes some familiar villains - TV, trash advertising, the bottom line, the hectic pace of life.

But the looking glass also holds thoughtful reflections about how our culture socializes kids to withdraw from their families, and how modern psychology finds abnormality in love, duty and caring.

Parents are accused of loving too much, of loving too little, of being the source of all adult pain.

One young client proudly told Pipher she had done "inner-child" work with other therapists and no longer allowed her mother to "manipulate" her into coming home for Thanksgiving and other family events.

She also said she hated her job, drank too much and had no friends.

"Lots of people have noticed that TV isn't good for kids. Lots of people have noticed there's not that much sense of community anymore," Pipher said in an interview from her Nebraska office, where she was resting up between book tours.

"But what I do is I try to connect the dots for people: Here's what it feels like to be in a family now."

Lest we forget how much we've changed, how much we've lost and gained in the past century, she tells of two families, then and now.

Here are their stories, in paraphrased form:

Pipher's grandparents, Fred and Agnes Page, married in 1913 and "proved up" a treeless homestead in Kit Carson County, Colo. They lived in a simple house with a kitchen, living room, two small bedrooms and an attic that was full of flies in the summer and ice in the winter.

Fred, given to pontificating in his later years, never swore, and he ended each day by telling Agnes he loved her. Before a meal, Fred looked proudly around the table and said, "Now, aren't I a lucky man."

Dignified and morally impeccable, Agnes ruled by example. No one questioned her moral authority. "Mother wouldn't approve of this" was explanation enough. When neighbors spoke badly of others, she changed the subject.

In those days, religion was discussed more than sex. People generally agreed on right and wrong. Company came often and stayed a long time. Medical care was primitive. Sick children often died. Women with abusive husbands had no choice but to suffer. Parents worried more about their children's character than their psyches. Most people in the community had about the same amount of money - not much. People were busy but not hurried.

Fade to 1996. Brian and Sandi Copeland arrived separately for their first therapy visit and sank exhausted into chairs. Brian, production manager of a manufacturing plant, had been out of town for several days and Sandi hadn't seen him since he got back. "My corporation is downsizing. I have no time," he told Pipher, adding sadly that he couldn't get away to attend his son's concert.

Sandi worked as personnel director of a care facility. Her boss timed her when she went to the bathroom and called her at home when she was sick to make sure she wasn't malingering. She struggled with PMS and depression and was on Prozac.

Even with two incomes, money was tight. Their daughter's inpatient treatment for anorexia had cost $22,000, and she now wanted to attend an expensive modeling school. Sandi, who had a master's degree in counseling, felt she was having trouble with motherhood because she was still "differentiating from her family of origin" and working on "old issues."

"I rush all the time, and I have nothing to show for it," Sandi said. "Brian and I spend more time worrying about our kids than our parents did. Mom played cards every afternoon with her friends."

Lamented Brian: "Our kids aren't as happy as we were. "What are we doing wrong?"

Maybe nothing.

Although there are some bad parents and unhealthy families, Pipher said, today's culture undermines even the best efforts.

The old days had sorrow and hardship, but families usually knew what the enemy was - famine, pestilence, fire, drought - external forces they fought together, in the shelter of each other, to quote an Irish proverb.

Today, Pipher said, the enemy is more vague, and overstressed families tend to point the finger at each other.

Therapists have unwittingly undermined families, she maintains, by applying labels such as "emotional incest" and "codependency" to acts of caring and love.

Parents now worry that they're being "controlling" or "imposing their values" if they ask their kids to do their homework.

Although therapy has enormous power to help people, Pipher said, too often the normal pain of living has been cast as a disease to be cured, while family weaknesses have been spotlighted and narcissism favored over mutual responsibility.

And mental health has been defined - in America, anyway - as the ability to separate from one's family of origin.

"It maybe makes more sense to stay closely connected with people who love you," Pipher said. As she notes in her book, "Nobody calls out for their therapist on their deathbed."

The go-it-alone mentality seems to be shifting, however.

"As this culture gets more fragmented, and particularly as the economy gets tougher, I think people are turning back to extended families," she said. "People seem touchingly eager to reconnect with families. . . ."

Pipher is struck by how differently other cultures view family closeness. She once had visitors from Scotland whose teenage children, without any self-consciousness, held hands with their parents.

"I had a high-school son at that point who would have preferred to be shot to holding my hand in public," Pipher said dryly.

Apart from describing herself as a feminist, Pipher tries to keep her political views under wraps. With the psychologist's knack for neutrality, she manages to seem either conservative or liberal, depending on which audience is projecting its views on her.

"I think we're a very polarized culture, and I think the people who are going to make the culture work again are going to be connectors, not polarizers," Pipher said.

"I'm really optimistic. My experience is, all over the country now there's a lot of people who are eager to get to work" rebuilding families and communities. "I think people are realizing no one else is going to do it. Cultural change is a million acts of individual courage and kindness."