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We're not meant to do this alone: American individualism is destroying our families

"I lived alone for almost a decade, but I never actually felt alone until I had children."


Tarja Parssinen
March 6, 2016 5:30AM (UTC)

Like many Americans, I'm raising my children far from family. My father is only an hour away, but the rest of us are spread wide across America: my mother in Texas; my sister in Oklahoma; my brother in New York City; my in-laws in Buffalo. Babysitters and after-school programs and summer camps are the village that helps me get the business of life done, and while having more family around would certainly help with the grind, what I miss most is simply time spent with them. The spontaneity of coffee with my mom, how fun it would be for the kids to see a movie with their cousins, enjoying a family barbecue on the weekend.

Nine years ago my husband got a job offer in San Francisco, and without a second thought we left New York City. We loaded the U-Haul covered wagon and did what Americans have been doing since Europeans came to this continent: we said goodbye to loved ones and headed west into the great unknown, forging a future for ourselves alone. Today, it is an American rite of passage to leave your family for college, leave your college for a job, and so on and so on, until opportunities abound but you need Sprint's Unlimited Plan to feel connected to blood. America's modern Manifest Destiny is no longer about physically expanding the boundaries of the continent, it is about self-expansionism.

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If you remember high school history at all, Manifest Destiny was the mid-19th-century American belief that settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent, and it was characterized by  the virtues of the American people, their mission to remake the West and their destiny to fulfill this duty.

What I find so astounding is that Manifest Destiny is not history at all. It is alive and well, a continued belief pervasive in families everywhere. If John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" sermon in 1630 called for this young nation to be an example to the Old World, then it only makes sense that almost 400 years later we look to ourselves to be an example to our parents, to take what they gave us and be even better, to remake our past and achieve individual success. We believe it to be our destiny, just as that job offer in San Francisco was my husband's destiny. It was an essential duty we needed to accomplish for our family, but after almost a decade, one house, two kids, starting a new company, and facing a glowing future, I wonder if there wasn't a way we could have done it differently. To somehow have circled the family wagons, keeping out the savage solitude of this brave new suburban frontier together.

Ironically, it was just this circle of family togetherness from which I was trying to escape as a young adult. Savage solitude was exactly what I was looking for, especially if it would help me write poetry like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. Fleeing what I felt to be the suffocation of Texas and a pattern of the expected -- staying in-state with familiar faces and family close by -- I went to college in upstate New York. I wanted to prove to myself that I could succeed in a wild survival experiment of rigorous academics, mountains of snow and thousands of students. I did not chose a small, intimate, familial institution. I chose a university with almost 20,000 undergrad and grad students. Usually, students create a new “family” in college, a broad social safety net of really good friends, but I did not. Family was overrated. My parents had recently combusted in a hellish fireball of divorce; my sister escaped to college, and my brother was left to survive middle school with a shitload of shrapnel. I had a couple of great friends, but mainly I turned to bad therapists and carbs.

Four years and a diploma later (individual success!), I was ready to continue my self-expansion and conquer New York City. If there’s one place in today’s America that represents the wild, untamed West of the 19th century, this is it -- not necessarily cowboys and Indians, but rather the naked cowboy in Times Square and an Indian cab driver. It was the next step in my survival experiment -- not just to live and work in New York City, but like Sinatra sang, to really make it there. No way in hell would I suffer a forced relocation in a trail of tears (and credit card debt) back to Texas and my family.

Because at this point, I still couldn’t comprehend the full value of family. My work in a big publishing house gave me a paycheck, but it was also fun and vibrant and socially fulfilling. Outside of work, I valued my solitude and sought out connection when I needed it. I called my mom every Sunday, I loved visiting family, but did I miss them? Not really.

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No. I couldn’t comprehend the value of family until I had my own, eight years later and 2,905 miles away in San Francisco. I thought I was so prepared to have a child, but raising a baby is perhaps the greatest exploration of all boundaries. The true frontier -- and my destiny, as I saw it. When my husband’s paternity leave ended after two weeks, I sat there on that couch, feeding and burping the baby and not moving until my husband came home 11 hours later. I lived alone for almost a decade, but I never actually felt alone until I had children. And this, for many, is the stay-at-home mother’s plight. Especially the stay-at-home mother who has no family nearby.

America’s cultural glorification of individualism and freedom do not prepare women for the intense need for family after giving birth. We prepare our babies with the softest swaddling cloths, organic diapers and the perfect nursery, but we are not encouraged to anticipate our own needs, especially that of simple connection with others. I equated my own crushing loneliness, my dependency on my husband and phone calls with my mother -- or any adult who listened kindly, for that matter -- to be weakness. Like any good fool with Finnish blood, I stoically buckled under exhaustion, isolation and the anxiety of being a new mother, by myself. I’m ashamed to say that for the first 10 months of my son’s life, I did nothing for myself: no exercise; no dinners out with my husband; no time to myself; no sleep. Why? Because individual success, man! This was the continent I'd timed my ovulation cycle to conquer!

The false assumption that I could parent alone is not just mine. It is societal. In Sebastian Junger’s Vanity Fair piece entitled “PTSD: The War Disorder that Goes Far Beyond the Battlefield,” he talks about the extreme isolationism in America and how soldiers suffer when they come home because they have lost their community. I have never been more profoundly affected by or able to relate to something. Why do people become firemen? Policemen? Join the Coast Guard? There are a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that being together makes people happy. Combine that with sacrifice for the survival of the group and you get oxytocin. It’s a brain reward system uniquely connected to our evolution. For the rest of us schmucks following the Simon & Garfunkel “I Am an Island” philosophy, Junger says, “personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”

All I know is that in the trenches of motherhood, I don’t want to battle alone. And what a shock it was for me to discover that.

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My boys are now ages 7 and 4 and my loneliness is both more manageable and more painful at the same time. The kids are in school, I stay active, I have lots of friends, but we are all spinning in different orbits: different carpools, different extracurriculars, different schools, endless errands, endless driving. With no family and only hard-fought  playdates or drinks together, the isolation is profound. I miss my friends, who are right next door or down the street, and with each passing year, I miss my family, the missing limb whose phantom pain only increases.

The vast array of choices that make us and our children more successful, more educated, more athletic, is like being at a Thanksgiving table that’s too long: here I am with a goddamn cornucopia of awesomeness, but I can’t see anyone! Yell once if you’re behind the “Guide to 5,000 Essential Summer Camps For Kids”! When I complain, my mom regales me with stories of living on the University of Petroleum and Minerals compound in Saudi Arabia: nothing to do but get together with her 10 neighbors who all had infants the same age as me and do playdates, family meals, and a nanny-share system that gave each woman some alone time. She says it was one of the happiest times in her life.

In my town, just north of San Francisco, transplants from all over America greatly outnumber the native San Franciscans. Missing our families is a common complaint. On the mother’s club forum, we ponder leaving the great jobs and amazing weather for the comfort of a close-knit family, weighing the pros and cons in lengthy debates. We have achieved personal and professional success, we are exceptional employees and exceptional parents. A few hundred years ago, the heart of American exceptionalism was, of course, that we were different than other nations. We were free from the historical forces that impacted other countries, but today, all we are is exceptionally lonely, the Isolated States of America. We are untethered by historical forces all right, free from mom's hugs, dad's homemade chili, and the pillars of extended family.

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Talking to my Hispanic dental hygienist over a garbled spew of spearmint tooth polish about my lack of blood-related village, "exceptional" was not the word she used to describe the way white America lives, it was "strange." She explained, "We all live close together and watch each other's kids and cook for each other. I mean, it's crazy but we're together, you know?" Yes, I know. This is true of all my family's international friends, from those in France who live within a 15-mile radius of each other, to those in Saudi Arabia, who live in a family compound by the dozens.

Families are together in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia -- all of over the world, except in America, where the premium is not placed on proximity. It's as if Americans must always be Lewis and Clark on a brave embarkation, and if we're not, we are provincial, frightened and uneducated. Unlike our ancestors, young people today are not concerned with America's place in the world. Instead, we ask ourselves, "What is my place in the world?"

We grow up with the belief that self-expansionism -- high school, college, career -- means pushing boundaries toward accomplishment and away from family. So off we go and hey, there's always FaceTime!

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What Americans fail to recognize about global family patterns is that children, should they have the means and ability, are encouraged to leave the nest, to seek education outside their homeland, perhaps even to find a life partner, and then -- then! -- to return to their extended family. Living a life near family does not mean sacrificing a life of exploration, travel and learning. Whereas Americans have perfected the art of the rocket, projecting themselves on lonely journeys, the rest of the world practices the boomerang, recognizing the value of leaving and returning.

Manifest Destiny was a contested concept in the 1800s because people didn't feel it reflected the national spirit, and I don't think its modern equivalent is doing us any favors either. The gain of personal enfranchisement doesn't seem to justify a detached form of living.

I don't need to study the research on how a lack of community affects the individual. I am that research. Now if only I could figure out how to turn this rocket around.


Tarja Parssinen

Tarja Parssinen is a writer and mom to two young boys. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and in various magazines and humor sites. She is the co-director and producer of the Listen To Your Mother San Francisco 2016 show, a national live reading series.

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