Traditionally, nuclear families are composed of a married father, mother, and their children. The idyllic ‘Leave It to Beaver’ family has long been held in high regard by society and conservative commentators, setting the standard – usually non-traditional – lacked the stability and support that nuclear families offered (Blessing). Propagating the stereotypes are conservative commentators, who often allude to culture and differing family values to support their claims (Gerstel and Sarkisian 47). In ‘The Color of Family Ties: Race, Class, Gender, and Extended Family Involvement,’ Gerstel and Sarkisian thoroughly examines the family relationships between Whites, Blacks, and Latino/as. Countering the belief that only nuclear families were capable of strong relationships, Gerstel and Sarkisian found that ‘minority individuals [were] more likely to live in extended family homes than Whites and in many more ways more likely to help out their aging parents, grandparents, adult children, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other kin’ (45). Strong relationships and the care taking capabilities of nonnuclear families were not only observed by Gerstel and Sarkisian, but could be seen in essays and poems such as ‘Looking for Work’ by Gary Soto, ‘An Indian Story’ by Roger Jack, and ‘Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt’ by Melvin Dixon. Each piece of literature showcased a nonnuclear family, broadening family relations to extended family members, defying and changing the traditional definition of family regarded by conservatives. While each family highlights nontraditional relationships, “An Indian Story” embodies strong familial relationships to its full extent, defying the perception that nontraditional families are incapable of strong family relationships.
The misconception that a family cannot survive without a traditional nuclear structure is often the point of contention amongst conservative social commentators. From a sociological standpoint, minority households are often nontraditional, lacking a traditional structure. As a result, these households are criticized and assumed to harbor poor family relationships. Conservatives tend to argue that a household is only successful when composed of both a male and female in the home. “The mother and father show different complimentary strengths which benefit the upbringing of any child. In a single-parent home, half of this influence is missing” (Terpstra). Without such, children from single households are likely to end up in prison and contribute to societal problems (Garfinkle). The perception that a nontraditional family has detrimental effects on the children and society is further exacerbated by conservatives like Ann Coulter and Caitlin Flanagan. Coulter argues that “single motherhood is not good for children,” while Flanagan wholeheartedly believes that “children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households” (DePaulo; Garfinkle). The two wealthy, educated White women, subjectively pass judgment on non-traditional family structures, honing in on the traditional nuclear family whilst ignoring the positive influences of extended family. Although nontraditional, minority families have been shown to have strong family relationships despite being led by a single parent. Because nontraditional families are generally found to be in lower social classes, extended kin are often close by and willing to exercise their care taking abilities (Gerstel and Sarkisian 50).
In “An Indian Story,” Roger Jack provides an intimate depiction of a nonnuclear family and the dependability of extended family. From his experience, he is able to show that the dependence on extended family was influenced by culture and personal beliefs, rather than social class (as previously found by Gerstel and Sarkisian). Unlike stereotypical minority families, Jack’s father “earned good money as an accountant at the agency.” However, he preferred the care of his Aunt Greta and was able to show the supportive nature of his extended family by recounting the day he moved in with her – “I ran away from home one day when everyone was gone – actually, I walked to Aunt Greta’s and asked if I could move in with her since I already spent so much time with her anyway” (Jack 53). Despite having other responsibilities and family members to care for, she openly accepted Jack into her home without hesitation. The stability and nature of his relationship with Aunt Greta was indicated in a conversation with his father. “The way [Greta’s] family believes is that two sisters coming from the same mother and father are the same. Especially blood” (56). To Aunt Greta, it made no difference that he was her nephew; she passed on love and knowledge freely, treating him as if her were her own son. Having access and exposure to the constant love and support, Jack’s “home and academic life improved a lot,” while his half-brother was a high-school dropout, contradicting Coulter and Flanagan’s conservative arguments (53). The strong relationship between the two extended family members was further demonstrated through a series of reminiscent adventures and through an anecdote of a mishap in Calgary. Having gotten drunk and placed in jail, “Aunt Greta didn’t talk much while we drove home. It was a long, lonely drive” (55). Reflecting a similar dynamic to that of a mother and son, Aunt Greta openly displayed her disappointment and displeasure, suggesting that Aunt Greta may have felt guilt and possible shortcomings as a care taker.
Through his experiences, Jack was also able to show the redefining of a nuclear family by establishing a strong relationship with Aunt Greta, as well as maintaining a relationship with his father. This was seen following an incident in which Jack was unable to talk to Aunt Greta about the events that had transpired in Calgary; ultimately, he was able to turn to his father. Living within close distance to his father’s home, Jack “walked through the front door without knocking, but immediately heard him call out… (55). Without hesitation, his father was able to sense that he felt heavy about the situation, supporting Gerstel and Sarkisian’s finding that men in minority families often provided emotional support. Challenging the stereotype of weak familial relationships, Jack’s father earnestly provided Jack with emotional support and advice, directing him to take on new perspectives regarding the situation. He was able to help Jack realize that Aunt Greta loved him dearly because “[he] was her bloodline,” squelching any concerns that Jack had about his relationship with her. To further disprove the notion that nontraditional families lacked strong ties, Jack’s father went against cultural norms to verbalize his love for his son in an effort to help him find solace in the situation. “I smiled in thinking that he said he loved me, because Indian men hardly ever verbalize their emotions” (57).
While “An Indian Story” focused largely on the stability and support of both the extended and nuclear family, Gary Soto’s “Looking for Work” followed the narrative of a young Latino body and his nontraditional nuclear family. Taken from a child’s perspective, the contrast between his working class background and aspirations to become a traditional wealthy family is depicted. On several occasions, he attempts to try traditional family practices seen on TV. In an attempt to imitate the idealist family, he requests that his family dress appropriately for dinner, only to be mocked by his brother – “[The] same day that I asked him to wear shoes he came to the dinner table in only his swim trunks” (Soto 20). The love and strong family ties are also shown through the relationships with his mother and sister. In an incident where he planned to spend the day with his best friend, he happily invited his sister and helped her cover the costs to enter the swimming pool. “I waved for her to come and three of us mounted the bike – Debra on the cross bar, Little John on the handle bars and holding the Coke bottle which we could cash for a nickel and make up the difference that would allow all of us to get in…” (22). The image Soto paints for the reader is one of simple, but happy times. “Our own talk at dinner was loud with belly laughs and marked by our pointing forks at one another. The subjects were commonplace” (22). Through this, he is able to clearly translate a stable and supportive home environment through descriptions of his family dinners, despite its nontraditional structure.
In contrast to both Jack and Soto’s stories, “Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt” by Melvin Dixon examines the supportive nature of a Black extended family and the surrounding community through the tradition of quilting. Having suffered the loss of her family member, Junie, the protagonist turns to her extended family and community for emotional support. In her old age, she happily accepts the assistance of her extended family: “Now I ain’t so old-fashioned I can’t change, / but I made Francine come over and bring her daughter / Belinda. We cut and tacked his name, JUNIE” (43). Together, they are able find solace by sharing theirs pains and memorializing their loved ones through quilting: “Just cut his name out in the cloths, stitch something nice / about him. Something to bring him back. You can do it, / Francine say. Best sewing our family ever had.” (42). The simple act of being there and working together stresses the love and care taking abilities between the extended family members. Furthermore, by maintaining and partaking in a long-standing family tradition of quilting, the strong tie to family and culture is emphasized. “Most of my quilts was made down South. My mama / And my mama’s mama taught me. Popped me on the tail / if I missed a stitch or threw the pattern out of line” (42).
The three works of literature examined the varying dynamics and practices of the nonnuclear family and their extended families. Dixon focused on the extended family, Soto on the nontraditional nuclear family, and Jack on the relationship between both extended and nuclear families. While each family observed exemplified strong and stable familial ties, “An Indian Story” in particular, best demonstrated the strongest example of supportive relationships and strong family ties. Not only was Jack able to foster a solid relationship with his Aunt Greta, he maintained a relationship with his father and half-siblings. While this nontraditional arrangement can be viewed as dysfunctional, I believe that the new dynamic Jack created for himself embodies the definition of family. Neither party harbors ill feelings towards another, rather focusing on the well-being of Jack, providing support when necessary. Through his experience, it can be concluded that while irregular and different, nontraditional families are more than capable of maintaining supportive relationships and strong familial ties.
By including the extended family when examining minority families, the suggestion that a nontraditional household is dysfunctional and lacks strong relationships no longer holds validity. As Gerstel and Sarkisian had examined, “social class rather than culture [was] the key to understanding the differences in extended family and behaviors between Whites and ethnic minorities” (51). While this may be applicable to Soto’s working class experience, it was observed that cultural backgrounds also had a significant influence on family dynamic. Regardless of the circumstances, all three nontraditional families were stable and capable of fostering strong family relationships, both within a nuclear and extended household.
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