Creating a Family Narrative

My sister, my mom, my brother, and wee little me, back in the days when we lived in a tiny apartment in Mississippi.

An article in the NY Times recently argued that the best way to instill resilience and self-confidence in children is to provide them with a strong family narrative. It’s a fascinating read. Much like other social groups, there is greater cohesion when the group shares its history – the highs as well as the lows – and forms a strong core identity in which children are helped to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

As I read the article, I saw how it reflected my own family. I knew where my parents grew up, I knew some of the darker skeletons in the closet, I knew the story of how my parents met and how I came to be, and my mom told me more times than I can count that blood is thicker than water; that friends may come and go, but that family – whether you want them to or not, and even if they sometimes go about it in really kooky ways – will always be there for you.

It wasn’t just words either. I saw our family banking system in action: when one member needs a boost to qualify for a home, the various relatives scramble to put it together, knowing full well one day it’ll eventually come back to them, though they’d do it regardless; when another gets married or has a baby, the older relatives pull together and set up a nest egg; when the younger members get older, they send money home to the grandfolks or even offer them a place in their own homes, and they continue the cycle of sending money down to help out the younger generations. The insurance is better than anything the FDIC can offer and it’s interest-free.

I saw unconditional love in action: no matter what was said, no matter what hurt was dealt, you could always come home. It might not be easy – justice would always be meted out – but you would never be turned away at the door.

Why does a strong narrative instill resilience? How does the family story bring strength? The article suggests it has to do with “sense-making,” identity creation, and group cohesion. Based on my own experience, I think it’s about more than that. Whenever my mom sat me down and gave me her blood is thicker than water spiel, I always took a deep amount of solace in that knowledge. I took comfort in knowing that I always had a home base, that I would never be shunned no matter what I did (I might surely have to pay the piper, but ostracism would never be the price), and that I always had a gaggle of supporters cheering me on from the sidelines.

Besides, when the family unit is strong, there’s no one better than an older, indulgent sibling, who once kissed all your boo-boos and got you that thing no one else knew you really wanted, to tell you when you’re being a schmuck. Because if you’ve gotten to the point where even they have to say something, then you know you better get your butt in gear. Crying about it is not going to make you shine any brighter in their book, so man up.

The flip side of that coin was a deep sense of duty. I’m not sure it was ever put into so many words, but because I had that comfort and the experience of seeing the family in operation, I knew I had a role to play too: that when others needed my help (whether it was asked for or not) the best way to show love was to jump in and do what was needed, that one needs to learn to be open-minded enough to see love in the kookiest of gestures and appreciate even the quirkiest of personalities, and (this was never expressly said, but if it’s true that I would never be ostracized, then the transverse must also be true) that the worst thing I could ever do would be to turn my back on family because they would never turn their back on me.

It’s part of what gave Toby & me the courage to take a leap and fly across the globe. We knew, no matter what happened or how miserably our experiment might fail, we could always have a soft spot to land at home. It’s what kept me going in the darkest, hardest parts of my most painful experiences…when I wanted to give up, when I would have simply let go if it were simply up to myself, I hung on for my family. When I couldn’t do it for me, I did it to honor the ones who never dreamed they could do it for themselves.

This NY Times article shone a light on an aspect of my family that I hadn’t put into quite the same words before. But if it’s true that a strong family narrative creates stronger children, I know what I’ll do when my child joins the fray. I’ll show them each and every day not just how I love him* and not just how my husband loves him, but all the ways all our aunts, uncles, grandmammas, grandpoppas, and cousins love him and what it means to love back. I will tell him again and again where and who we came from, and I will show him that whatever we did and no matter from how far away, we did it together.

* And by “him” I mean “him or her.” No, we don’t know the baby’s sex yet. 

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4 thoughts on “Creating a Family Narrative

  1. So true. The family narrative is all the more important for us when we are raising our children oceans away from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

  2. The family unit is so strong (maybe a little bit too strong) in my parents' generation – it's sad to see it slipping a little in ours. I know that my parents are already doing what they can do that when they are gone, my sister and I know that we can count on each other for anything. And that's a pretty priceless feeling to have

  3. Your mom is so gorgeous in that picture…that smile! And you are a dumpling!!! So sweet!

  4. I read the article and nodded the whole way through. Everything starts in the home. It has to come from somewhere first, right? We have a strong narrative in our family. My parents made sure that we knew exactly where we came from, how we were striving to make it (on eggshells sometimes) and how none of it matters because at the end of the day we have each other. No. Matter. What! … And I couldn't agree more about the sense of duty. You have to, as an adult, man up and do the same. It is a duty, but one that is performed with the heart. I loved this article. I loved your interpretation. And by the way, your family is gorgeous, jade!