A few weeks ago, an outspoken acquaintance was ranting about public education, among other social issues. The married man in his mid-30s (who has no children, mind you) said, “Anyone who sends their kids to public school is a neglectful parent.” Bold — but undeniably hyperbolic — words. And while I appreciated the kernels of insight (far) below them, with many frustrations of my own about public education, I had to disagree for a number of reasons, aside from the obvious point that there are plenty of us very good parents who still are sending our kids to public schools.
Then I was talking with my mom about my grandma, who’s 97 and in probably better health than I’m in, and living in a nice retirement community. She recently fell a couple of times and got an infection, so she spent a few days in the hospital and now is in transitional care and needing a bit more attention, rather than being pretty much independent. My mom has been with her there (visiting from the town she lives in about a 6-hour drive away) and has been outraged at the lack of attentive care she’s been witnessing — and this is with my mom there near her, at a highly ranked facility, and my grandma has very good insurance and financing. We’re not even talking about a not-so-great facility paid for by Medicare.
I won’t go into all my concerns about public education, about health care, about elder care. They’re each deserving of thousands and thousands of words. What strikes me, though, is that as a 40-something woman who has children at home, one daughter about to attend college, and a mother who’s retired and a grandma who’s quite old, I am in that spot of life where there are plenty of people to worry about and take care of on some level. And as much as I’d love to be the kind of person who could home-school my kids, I’m just not. Plus, I still want them to have the opportunities for learning about the world that exist outside my home. And I wish my mom and grandma could live with (or nearer to) me and I could help watch out for them.
Here’s the thing: none of us in our society today is capable of doing it all. In fact, no one ever has been able to “do it all” as we see it in our contemporary society. We have so many opportunities for self-actualization and fulfillment (which can be “bad” or “good,” depending on to what lengths we go to achieve them) and for involvement in the world around us today. But we depend on our public-sector system to provide certain services to take care of our wide and varied needs, like education and health care. Decades ago, extended families lived either in one home or very close by, and they worked together, sharing all the duties. Communities were truly communal; everyone did something to take care of someone else, essentially. Today, extended families are often distant. My mother is 2000 miles away from me, as well as most of my siblings. It’s my job and my husband’s to take care of my children; he provides most of the money from his 40-hour-a-week job to buy what we need, and I carry out many of the functions at home (another blog post entirely, too…). I feel we’re actually blessed to be able to have that setup (I am pleased with it, let’s make a note of that, too); I have flexibility to be able to be there for my girls when they need me throughout the day and to be involved in educational and extracurricular activities. I also am able to pursue some of my own interests, which makes me feel “me” and better able to take care of my family.
“It takes a village” has now become a bit of a trope, but it’s still true. Individuals need systems around them to allow them to live and thrive. Nuclear families best provide individuals with what they need, and extended families best support nuclear families.
So what’s wrong now? I am positive much of it is the breakdown of nuclear families; we have so many single-parent families today. Extended families are just as broken in many respects; some aren’t broken, just distant because of necessity. The basic solution is twofold: do all we can as a society to support the nuclear family, helping and encouraging the formation and permanency of families, and then to make sure the public-sector services are good and dependable. Everyone, every family, needs to know that education is well funded and well run. And families who are responsible for their elder members need to know they will be supported in those vital endeavors as well.
I’m not “for” government running everything. I am “for” programs that will provide help to families, who are the backbone of our society. I am “for” making sure there are safety nets and support systems in place, not to replace the work of families, but to help them do their work better. Because if our families are struggling, our whole society is in a real pickle.