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The American family is broken. It consists of constituent parts that do not cohere. It comprises husbands and wives who are not intimate. And it is producing children who are not secure.
In hosting the upcoming TLC television series Shalom in the Home and taping the episodes that will begin to air in 2006, I have come to understand the problems that are tearing the modern family asunder.
First, there is the work-too-hard burnout of the modern mother and wife. Working outside the home to provide the family with the all-important second income and coming home to children who are domestically lazy and rarely help, she is overwhelmed by a deluge of responsibility that saps her energy and crushes her spirit.
In trying to simply keep up with her ever-mounting responsibilities and making every effort not to fail her family, she slowly loses her soft edge as she becomes either a shouter - browbeating her children to do their chores - or a martyr, forever lecturing her kids about everything she does for them and how she receives no appreciation in return. She quickly forsakes the attempt to inspire her children to be actively involved in the home and is reduced to using guilt and pressure to get them to do simple chores.
She develops resentment toward her husband because he works hard at the office, but not in the home. And as she drags her haggard frame from kitchen to bedroom, she is expected to look attractive, youthful and retain a trim figure, even as the woman inside has gone into hibernation.
Something has to give, and it is usually a sense of self as she slowly loses her individuality and morphs into chauffeur, chef and sheriff. To add insult to injury, her husband will later use her devotion to the family against her by asserting that they have no time to be a couple and that she has lost her romantic impulse, obsessed as she is with domestic responsibilities.
Small wonder that, according to The Washington Post`, one in three doctor's office visits by women involve a prescription for an antidepressant.
NEXT THERE are the children, exhibiting a lifelessness and numbness more redolent of those who have been through wars than those who ostensibly are innocent and have never suffered trauma. Their ears stuffed with iPod headphones and the culture pumping incessant decadence straight into their cerebral cortex, they are cut off from all that is natural and most of what is healthy.
Passivity, born of endless hours of sitting in front of a television, has become second nature. Childhood exuberance has been replaced with apathy, youthful innocence with a cynical weariness. Even if they are not on Ritalin - and one out of seven American kids is prescribed a stimulant drug - they are still addicts, with movies, video games and shopping being the drugs of choice.
With the home often an endless cacophony of noise, with parents tuning out in front of TVs or the Internet, the children develop a preference for the company of friends and find any excuse to abandon the home.
The decentralization of the home, whereby kids have replaced parents with friends, is among the greatest challenges to the modern American family. And rather than rising to the challenge, parents have capitulated, accepting that they bear the mark of Cain, that it is natural for teenagers to feel ashamed of them. And slowly the friends supplant the parents as the principal influence in the child's life.
In one of our television episodes, during an inspired moment brought about by counseling, a mother turned with tears in her eyes to the teenage son from whom she felt estranged, hugged him, kissed him and told him he was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Utterly unmoved and with a blank expression on his face, his response was, "Come on Mom. This is getting corny."
I was astonished at how an expression of love between parent and teenage child had become something to be ridiculed. Here was a boy who would reject his mother's affection because it might humiliate him in front of his mates.Not that we need worry we are screwing up our kids, seeing as there are precious few children left to screw up in the first place. In the United States, the birthrate of the more affluent white population is 1.83 babies per family, well below both the replacement rate of at least 2.1.
Whiteness is inconsequential and meaningless. But as an indicator of how prosperity in America has led us to value big cars over cute infants, and plasma TV screens over baby pictures, our own soullessness is exposed.
Liberals are also disappearing - quite literally - less due to the efforts of Rush Limbaugh and more due to the effects of a lost appreciation of children. The Week magazine recently reported that "people who describe themselves as socially conservative are having far more babies than those who consider themselves liberals... differences in fertility rates accounted for 70% of the decline in mainline Protestant church membership... and the simultaneous rise in conservative church membership."
How ironic that we in America have bred a culture whereby the more ostensibly enlightened the individuals, the less they value children, and the more progressive their political ideology, the more they tend to find purpose through career rather than family.
Broken things can be fixed, and the American family can be mended. It will begin with the understanding that success in life is measured not by the size of our bank accounts but by the quality of our relationships; that to be human is not to acquire, but to connect.
The writer, a rabbi, is author most recently of Hating Women. His Web site is www.shmuley.com .
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