The Very Messy Reality of Family

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Modern Americans are desperate to make it appear like they have everything under control—right down to the ridiculously perfect stickers they put on the back of Mom’s SUV.
By James D. Hogan



You know those stick-figure decals of families you see on the backs of cars? The ones that depict Mom and Dad, their little brood of two or three kids, maybe even a bouncy-happy dog to go along? The decals are somewhat ubiquitous, and each seems to suggest some utopia of familial bliss. Inside those minivans and sport utes, one might imagine, is a family on its way somewhere—maybe soccer practice if there’s a soccer sticker on the back, or yoga if one of the stick figures poses with Namaste—full of gooey love.

I think the whole idea is full of baloney.

Okay, okay—that might be a bit harsh. Still, it isn’t that simple. It can’t be. Family comes from the Latin word familias, which roughly means “a household full of mostly screwed-up people whose lineage prevents them from successfully escaping one another.”

Like people who sign tweets #blessed, those stick-figure decals almost always invoke an eye roll. Part of me wishes they could just be more honest. Instead of that relative bliss on the back of an SUV, how about a stick-figure Dad locked in the bathroom reading magazines, a stick-figure Mom crazily attempting to remove her stick-figure toddler from a chandelier, a stick-figure Fido marking his territory on the decorative plant, and a stick-figure teenager taking a duck-faced selfie amidst the chaos. That’s life.

And further-more, why don’t they make stick-figures that more closely fit modern American families? I’m talking about stick-figures representing second (or third) husbands, or the live-in girlfriend and her third-grader, or the jobless college grad who’s staring down thirty and still living at home.

My parents divorced when I was nine; my brother and I spent our childhoods shuttling back and forth on various weekends, negotiating newly blended family gatherings on the holidays, moving into new schools, and mostly trying to keep our heads above the water. I have four step-siblings, two I haven’t heard from whatsoever since my step-father died of cancer five years ago. I have an older step-sister who is about to become a grandmother. I have an aunt who is an alcoholic and an uncle who is Mormon. Imagine all that in stick-figures.

We haven’t even gotten to in-laws. If you’re married, I’m sure you know.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time worrying what my friends must’ve thought about my family. (What teenager isn’t deeply embarrassed of his or her own household?) These days, though, I am astounded at the hilarious, joyous, maddening, frustrating, fun, insane, predictable, and lovable family I share. Yes, there are highs and lows, tears and laughter, but they’re a good bunch, and besides, what else can I do?

Family gets you far. When we sit down for supper Sunday nights, there might be a new or different face at the table. No matter—family is family. Everybody’s welcome. It’s so much easier that way.

Last month on his journey to America, Pope Francis took time during his address before the United States Congress to hold up the family unit and extol its importance. This, he said, is important. And it is—for our society, for our children, and especially for our church.

Thank goodness that in God’s eyes we’re all equal little stick figures, each of us deserving of redemption no matter how we got to the supper table. We’re all God’s children, and just like it is for me and my family, what else can we do? Family is family, every crazy, yoga-posing, selfie-stick bearing one of us. —James D. Hogan



201510Cover110This article was originally featured in the October 2015 edition of Trinity Topics. Read more of this publication here.

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