As soon as you’re born into a family, you begin to learn about connection.
Wait, scratch that.
As soon as you perceive existence you begin to learn about connection! (In fact, I doubt there is any human experience more clearly about connection than that shared by mother and child-in-the-womb.)
But newborns surely learn about it. Infants learn it, toddlers learn it. Who is part of my family? How much do we talk to each other, see each other, help each other, work together, eat together, etc.? If a child is raised around family members (biological or otherwise), they are being exposed to an abundant number of lessons on connection (or avoidance of the same.)
What does it mean to grow up feeling connected?
Our modern western culture has an amazing knack for boiling things down. While other cultures focus on cuisine, ours focuses on micronutrients. Where older civilizations had ultra-physical ways of life, we have 30 minute aerobic classes. But the most striking example of this reductionism may be the change to the connected family. It’s now quite normal to pay someone to care for your children, care for your elderly relatives, prepare many of your meals, or tend to your home. Nearly all of the jobs which used to be performed by an extended family can now be outsourced to other providers like day care centers, nursing homes, and restaurants. Does less dependence on family make us less connected to family?
As a child, I grew up in the same city as most of my relatives and spent a great deal of time with them. I had a strong sense of our family tree from a young age. But most people I know who share a similar background have a very different layout on their family tree. Prestigious schools, higher-paying jobs, new freedoms, and opportunities to buy better homes have pulled relatives farther away down the branches, until it’s likely that most leaves will never meet. This certainly hasn’t spelled doom for their families, but recently I wondered how my own identity has been shaped by my extended family, in ways that members of more spread-out families might never experience.
The sense I had growing up, of being connected to a large family network that I could draw upon on a daily basis, gave me a security that allowed me to withstand a great many challenges. I didn’t always fit in at school, but I had a lot of people to connect with outside of school. I didn’t always know what kind of person I wanted to become, but having so many examples of adults whom I shared similarities with gave me a sense of possibilities.
Now that I am an adult and a mother, I’m incredibly fortunate to still have close relationships with both of my grandmothers. I’ve had many long heart-to-hearts with both of them, something that is deeply meaningful now that I’m older: I understand them better than I did in childhood, I can relate to their lives more, and I am touched more by their stories having realized my own aging process and mortality. I thought about both of them a lot this past Mother’s Day, and noticed all the parts of my personality that are similar to theirs. It’s truly amazing; I am exactly like my grandmothers! As I was realizing this, I had another sadder realization that most people I know will never know whether or not this is true for them. And so many parents report struggling to understand their children or relate to their personality or behavior.
It’s normal to want to focus on things in your life other than caring for your family, and it’s not wrong to do so. Everyone needs to have time for themselves where no one needs them or demands anything from them. But connecting with children and elders is a skill that can be honed with practice. Taking time to do it will make you better at it, and the benefits to your own life are immeasurable.
The biggest challenge for most adults when attempting to connect with the very young or very old is slowing down! We are constantly encouraged to do more: be more productive, work more hours, get more sleep, make more money, get more exercise, buy more things… but we all only get 24 hours in each day to do all this in! Looking back on our lives when we ourselves reach our elder years (if we are fortunate enough to see them), we are not likely to bemoan doing less of any of these things…but we will be affected by how much time we spent feeling love, and sharing that love with others.
Making your loved ones a priority is a revolutionary act. It is important in a way that few other things in life are. And every connection that we build and strengthen within our families binds us closer as a people. As Mother Teresa has so wisely spoken, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”