8:25 am, the phone rings like a fire alarm and Adrienne White jumps up. A quarter hour later she is in the ER with her mother who is sick and being diagnosed with severe anemia. Three hours later White is on my doorstep waiting to drive me to Wal-Mart.
“She just needs to drink vitamins,” the 22-year-old shrugs at my question why she isn’t with her mother. I nod and put on the belt. If it was me, I would have stayed home with my mom for a week.
But this is the States.
Of course White did her duty. Nobody would accuse her of abandoning her mother in a time of need. She did pick her up, she stayed with her in the hospital, drove her back home and bought her pills. The social responsibility is fulfilled, the norm is kept, the family crisis is prevented.
But it was somewhere on the way from her sick mother to my doorstep that something suddenly came up missing.
The panic. The illogical fear. The annoying protectiveness. The emotion.
The concept of family clear, this daughter drove away from her sick mother’s house to go to Wal-Mart with her colleague. As a friend, I was grateful. As a daughter, I had a hard time grasping the reality of how different family duty is being perceived around here.
“Why are you surprised?”asked Violeta Zheliazkova, a Bulgarian student in Microbiology and an environmental activist. “This is the country of the babysitters.”
And that is how this topic came to my attention.
Every American going on vacation has inevitably seen the big signs, loud commercials and sparkly brochures of resorts, restaurants, amusement parks. What do they have in common is two words around which revolves the whole idea of vacation.
During my first summer in the States these two words hunted me down even in the deep forests of Wisconsin. I would shake my head, stare at the commercials and blink with wonder at why is family fun so important? Are Americans such traditionalist that they don’t go vacationing alone or with friends? The overuse of that word actually made it sound cheap and insincere to me.
So what is it about people here that makes them put family on such an obvious pedestal? Well, maybe the word “obvious” made it… well, obvious.
Little time did I need to realize that, just like so many other things, “family” is a social code, a structure deeply inherited in the very blood of the social manners of the American people. Family is the skeleton that brings about everything else.
Great idea! I thought.
However, as some big family groups interacted in front of my eyes, I sensed a formality that Americans themselves could never fathom. Family may be the skeleton of social interaction in here, but it is a skeleton of duty, of Thanksgiving dinners and formal gatherings, all of which so popular and obvious, that they become mandatory.
That said, I am not stating that these people don’t love each other or don’t care for each other. But having a huge group of family members while being thousands of miles away and seeing them a few times a year doesn’t make for a strong relationship.
It is the social code that gets them together.
And it is the social code that takes them apart, as it requires formal meetings and technical duty, but does not, and could not, require emotional connection between the family members. After all, emotion has no way of being measured by the hour as they cut the Thanksgiving turkey.
Another explanation for this technical precision of family closeness can be stretched in the word “distance”. Or if we go back to Zheliazkova’s statement – “This is the country of the babysitters.”
Parents in the States are sometimes separated by thousands of miles from their children every day. Not only that, the grandparents and close relatives may be on the other end of the country with zero chance to help with the small kids. A babysitter is the logical answer to a society spread on a huge territory with insane working hours.
There is one more major event that marks the difference in the European and American family structures – senior parent.
To be a senior in America means to live in a senior home when you no longer can take care of yourself. Your kids may help move your stuff and then they may pay the monthly fee. But for the 3 years I have been dealing with American people, I haven’t heard of seniors taken home by their children.
In Europe, not taking care of your elderly parents is a social shame of the utmost scale. Letting your parents enter a facility marks you as a bad, ungrateful and cold-hearted son/daughter for the rest of your life.
“This is an awful thing done by children ungrateful for the sleepless nights their parents had while raising them,” said Aneta Kineva, a Bulgarian teacher who spent the last 5 years of her life taking care of her cancer-sick parents.
However, as you take care of the sick of old parents, chances are there will be a lot of inner turmoil and sense of injustice because your life suddenly revives around somebody sick and old until their dying breath.
“I had no personal life,” said Aneta.
On the other hand, the connection parent-child in the States doesn’t mutate to this point of frustration since children don’t take care of the parents and just go visit them in their facilities.
Thus, In the European case, emotions bring together and tear apart the members of the family. In the American case, the formality of the social code combined with huge distances and secluded way of life sometimes make for somehow impersonal relationships between close relatives.
Let’s go through the life of an average American and see the differences with the European model.
As a baby the kid usually gets the mother’s attention since being a stay-at-home mom seems to be pretty big around here. As the kid grows up the parents go back to working long hours and driving around the state and that’s where the babysitter shows up. Another person to take care of you instead of your parents is not unhealthy, but it does blur the definition of a parent a lot. Not being used to having their parents around so much, the early teen years are the rebellion of the apocalypse and the hostility may go on for years. At the age of 18 most Americans leave their homes for good, move to another state for college and visit their parents during the winter break. By the time they finish college they have usually found a job in said state and would, naturally, prefer to stay there and work rather than going back close to mommy and daddy. As time goes by, children are being born and the grandparents are far away, so the babysitter scenario repeats itself.
Of course, this is a generalization. But a logical one.
This is how the scenario would develop in Europe:
The baby is being born and immediately occupied by at least two aunts, grandmothers and random neighborly ladies from the block. When the parents aren’t at home the grandparents stay with them since they live either in the same city or close to it. As the kid grows up the parents are always home during the weekend and late afternoons since European working hours are way fewer than American. By the time they are 18 they apply for college, but due to the short distances a lot of students stay home and just commute to university. Moving out doesn’t happen at the age of 18 to the majority of Europeans. It is maybe a few years later that the young people get their independence. Usually in less than an hour distance from their parents, just because no European country is so big that it takes 3 days to go through it. As the already grown-up kids move away, the bond between them and their parents has been transformed into something a lot stronger than what it was when they were 18. This is a bond of emotional investment. Not the obligation to spend Christmas with them, but the infuriation when they knock on your door at 10 p,m. asking how you are.
It is the array of emotions from love to annoyance to infuriation that make European families a lot more emotionally invested in each other… and a lot more chaotic. Europeans don’t talk so much about family as a word, but they act as a family intuitively due to their close proximity to each other.
At the end of my shift, after Adrienne White drove me to Wal-Mart, a familiar-looking girl walked to my register. Amber Hicks, my colleague, smiled and waved. “I am here with my family who came to visit me,” she said, her eyes shining and her cheeks red. Yes, an amusement park is not the most intimate place to see your closest relatives, but something in Amber’s shining eyes told me a different story… The story that the formality of interaction between American families and the chaotic emotional communication of European families is a difference not in the amounts of feelings, but in the way of their expression. The players are the same, just the board is different.