Traditional Family Values – Extinct?

Whilst on my way to work today, I tuned in to my local radio station. The topic for the ten minutes was whether or not traditional family values exist. The argument, according to the middle aged presenter, was that The Brady Bunch should return to our screens so that current up and coming youngsters can learn what true traditional family values are all about. The Brady Bunch episodes would always culminate in the entire family being together either at the dining table or in the lounge discussing the moral of the episode – the proverbial image of families talking together and solving problems together. The lines were then opened to hear what the general public thought about this notion and indeed the notion of traditional family values and whether or not they still exist.

An expert was called in who categorically declared that the traditional family values of sitting down and eating together do not exist and that it is due to technology that this is the case. Then a plethora of people called in. Most of them wanted to make me puke. You know the kind. The goody-two-shoes types you used to hate at school who would tell on you if you were passing notes. I listened as mom after mom phoned in to say that they had traditional family values and that they insisted upon it in their family (not a hint of jealousy there, see?). I wanted to hit each and every one of them. I preferred the ones that phoned in to say that it was a miracle if their family got to see each other for more than five minutes in a week. In fact, I liked them a lot.

This got me to thinking. Why was it that I despised the family-value supermoms and loved the family-value wrecks. Was it because that I indeed fell into the category of the latter. Let us have a look at it. I am in my forty’s. I have a husband, an 18 year old and a nearly 13 year old. I work part-time, my 18 year old is hardly ever at home and the only time we get to talk is in the car when I am ferrying her from one place to another (which admittedly is quite frequently). However, she announced the other day that she really hates my incessant questions in the car, to which I snapped that I wouldn’t ask so many questions if she would volunteer some information on her life, rather than have me extract them like some painfully wedged in wisdom tooth. Strike one there then.

Our 13 year old has PDD-NOS and Sensory Processing Disorder. For those unenlightened (as we once were), PDD-NOS (which is short for Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) is a mild form of autism and SPD is a condition that renders the sufferer unable to filter sensory input. They, by default, find communication on any standard level extremely difficult.

And isn’t that the point of the Traditional Family Value (which we shall term TFV for short) of getting together at the end of the day? For families to get together to communicate, to talk about their day and find solutions to the day’s problems as a collective family? I wondered at my own upbringing and tried to remember our TFVs. We sure enough sat down each night to eat at the dinner table, but more often than not, my parents would end up arguing. Us three kids would just look at each other, rolling our eyes, sighing at yet another chaotic meal. Eventually, my father would insult my mother and I, being the eldest and feeling the most protective of my mother would jump in and have my say too. We invariably would end up in our rooms not talking at all (and even perhaps a bit hungry because the meal had not been finished). However, sure enough, the next night, we would all have to sit down to begin the ritual again. By the time I was 15, I began a protest and simply refused to eat at the dinner table.

When I became a mother, I imagined a life of TFVs and the Brady Bunch image of eating together, talking through our problems and celebrating our successes together. But, alas, the reality just didn’t gel. I was exhausted, suffered terribly with post natal depression and it was all I could do to get the food down the baby’s throat so I could curl up and find some blissful sleep. As the children got older, I returned to study and then to work. Time became an issue. The children couldn’t wait for my husband to get home as they would be too hungry, so I would feed them early. Being almost six years apart, the conversation was somewhat difficult. They certainly did not want to communicate with each other. I would try to eat with them, but gave it up in favour of adult conversation later in the evening. While they were eating, I would try to complete household tasks so that my house didn’t permanently look like a bombed flat in Beirut. The TFV dream seemed to be slipping away.

Eventually, I didn’t even think about the TFVs. We succumbed to technology (which, frankly, I love). A TV and laptop in each room and a mobile phone for each person. When we have dinner, sometimes we manage to eat together, but more often than not we don’t. TV eating is big in our household. I get the feeling I should be ashamed of that, but somehow, actually I’m not. I realise that society’s demands are a double-edged sword. It demands as a mother you expose your children to as many activities as is humanly possible, jamming their every waking moment with some learning experience. But then, you also have to make sure that they have enough time to slow down and sit quietly at the dinner table (and even at lunch on the weekend) to talk and be together. Frankly, with all the activity we are shoving at them, it is incredible they even have the energy to eat, let alone talk and solve problems as well.

As it happens, neither of our children do ‘activities’. They are extremely anti-competitive and as such don’t do sport/music/dance. Our 18 year old doesn’t talk, full stop. It wouldn’t matter if we made her sit down and eat with us, she would still glare at me every time I asked her a question about her life, like I was invading her privacy. Our son blurts out random things whether we are at the table or not. As parents we can make sense of what he is saying, but again, sitting at the dinner table would have no baring on that at all. As for my husband and I, well, we have always done our talking in bed (among other things), when we have crashed after a very tiring day of working, cleaning, cooking, running kids around, etc., etc.

In fact, I am wondering, really, why we have a dining table at all. All it is used for is a dumping ground and on which to do homework when the kids don’t want to be in the study. I guess it is a symbol. A symbol of an ideal – of a family that sits around it at each and every meal time, talking animatedly about their days, sharing and caring in that Brady Bunch way. I guess it is an allusion to a TFV I once wished I had, but now realise is just a pipe dream (loaded with guilt for the time strapped mother). Maybe one day, in act of rebellion, I will burn it, but for now, I’ll keep it … just in case.

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