Christmas weekend seems to lead to observations of family life, a time-out pulse-taking every year. This year, mine is grounded in a sweetly recent memory: a candlelit dinner I got to treasure a few weeks ago with a family that is at the same relational stage mine is. The parents are in their fifties, as Spouse and I are. Their children are late 20’s - early 30’s, as ours are. Each of their offspring now has a partner defined as permanent, or likely to be so. One difference is that both of my children are married to their partners: “American kids marry young,” I heard myself explain several times. Mine were 25 and 27 when they married, and I hear US Americans, at least in some income brackets and some regions of the country, saying “that’s not so young.” People in many other places – including the UK – exclaim “that IS young.” This is one part of the “culturally situated study of relationships” I’ve been working on for close to 20 years.
That dinner, with the parents (A and B), their children (C and D) and the children’s partners (E and F), has me pondering this as a relational phase in nuclear family expansion. It’s clearly temporary, and it seems to me that it’s also culturally situated in speech communities where nuclear families, blended or otherwise, are the predominant arrangement. For some period of time, a family two parents and two children becomes three couples. In the US and the UK, this is a particularly defining moment if the three couples arrange to spend time together outside of a larger event, like a family reunion. It’s one thing to tolerate your child’s partner with other people around as a buffer, organized around activities that make extended conversation unnecessary. It’s another when there are just the two – or four – or six of you. Turns at talk have to be coordinated. Face wants have to be negotiated, and silences and stories become meaningful. Individual wants and needs are either made known, or swallowed in the interest of smoothly unfolding coordinated action.
Childhood roles overlap adulthood conversation; romantic partners overlap with siblings and parents, with all the richness and peril those combinations suggest. Parent/child relationships are assumed to be permanent, and by the time the Sixsome Stage happens have been in place for decades. When the relationship between an adult child and their partner is defined as serious and then (ideally) permanent, there’s some fragility, even peril. Will the couples be able to function as a unit? Will the parents get along well enough with the partner to get together for dinner, for a weekend, for a holiday weekend? What about the siblings and their partners? In the culture where this dinner happened, there’s a limit to how much weight “they’re family” can pull as an influence strategy to get people to spend time together with others they don’t happen to like.
And this moment of three couples is brief. It lasts only until the first grandchild is born, creating yet another dynamic of the children who become parents, making their parents (often with unique excitement) grandparents. At this candlelit dinner in a quiet tapas restaurant, I listened in on all the conversations, taking part here and there but mostly just enjoying the people enjoying each other: A smiling at B, D and A talking earnestly, then turning to include C, C leaning back to laugh with E, B writing something down for F, F and A grinning and slapping their palms together. There was easy comfort, arranging for future gatherings of these six people – and these two, and those four. I loved how relaxed they were, how readily they laughed together and planned a holiday a month from now and told stories about funny times a year ago when they were all together, how they looked forward to the next time they would all be around the same table.
Such an exquisite moment, so much better than any movie that could be put onto a screen or novel that could be written into a book. Every one of those ordinary conversations seemed to me a building block for something crucial. I thought about the moment, not far off, when there will be infants in the mix, adding delight and let’s face it: screaming and sleep deprivation and the special brand of agony that is a newborn. I imagined the days when A and B (parents) lived their lives around C and D (their children), before C and D grew up and became partners of E and F. There was little talk this time about A’s elderly parents, X and Y, who live on their own some hours away. I noticed the absence because A and B and I often talk about the worries of elderly parents: Should they still be driving? What happens when – not if – one of them falls? The awful chill that goes down your spine when the phone rings at an odd hour – A and B and I overlap there, along with so many other places.
The side of the Sixsome Stage none of us were thinking about that lovely night: Someday A and/or B may need care from C-F. Who will make the decisions, and how and when? Will A and B and I manage our frail years differently so that we worry our children less than our parents worried us? The siblings will need to coordinate with each other, and with their partners, on decisions and caregiving. C, D, E and F will have that journey to take together, and maybe it will go a little more smoothly because they have had this night at the tapas restaurant – and others like it – when they were young and the partnerships were new and X and Y were not their worry.
On this night at the tapas restaurant, they are not necessarily celebrating the fact that they have this moment – both this dinner, and the times they have shared before and the times they will share before something changes about this configuration – but I am celebrating it for them. I am noticing that not everyone gets to have it, sometimes because of siblings or parent/child-in-laws who don’t get along, or a parent who divorces or dies early, or a child who comes along before the sixsome forms, or geography or time that makes this impossible (impossible being, sometimes, a decision people make about what they would have to do in order to make the sixsome happen, and whether they think that’s worth it; and other times an absolute). I am noticing that this stage does not really happen in an extended-family-centric community like Colombia or Spain, where (a) gatherings of just three couples like this would be unnatural because there would always be extended family present, such that (b) individuals’ feelings and reactions to each other would both be diluted by other people around, and (c) how they felt about each other would be considered much less important than fulfilling the obligations of a family role like “son,” “daughter,” “son-in-law,” etc.
My own sixsome is beginning 10 days together in an apartment in Bogotá that measures roughly 900 square feet. As usual during these times, I expect to veer between being grateful to have this year of all being together for the holidays, observing and taking fieldnotes of cultural communication and relational phenomena, and thinking what a marvelous novel this would make – if only it were happening to someone else. This time, I plan to post updates on this blog that will be part of the conversations I’m interested to have as I finish my book about relationships in cultural context. More about that next time.Commenting is not available in this channel entry.