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Relationships • Parenting

Why Family Matters

– Emotional Nepotism

One of the things that makes families so important and so meaningful is that they are centres of unashamed nepotism. We’re used to thinking very negatively of nepotism. We are taught that a good society is one in which people rise and fall according to their own merits or flaws – and do not gain any sort of unfair favour from their families. But, in a crucial emotional sense at least, most of us don’t actually believe this. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, emotional nepotists.

Historically, the idea of nepotism in Europe was particularly associated with the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. The word nepotism was born when a series of Popes took to appointing their nephews (nipote in Italian), along with other family members, to top jobs irrespective of their talents.


Titian, Pope Paul III and His Grandsons, 1545–46

In 1534, the already elderly Alessandro Farnese was elected Pope and took the name of Paul III. One of the first things he did was to elevate his young grandson (also called Alessandro) to the influential and lucrative position of Cardinal. He made another grandson the Duke of one of the small Italian states that was – at that time – directly under the control of the Pope. It was all appallingly unfair. In this regard, nepotism presents a deep affront to modern enlightened ideals of open competition, especially around work and careers.

But we have to admit that the idea of bias towards relatives possesses – in the emotional as opposed to the professional sense – a deeply reassuring and attractive side as well. What is more, we have all ineluctably been the beneficiaries of the starkest, grossest nepotism already. We wouldn’t have got here without it. That’s because when we were born, despite the millions of other children in the world, irrespective of our merits (we didn’t really have any), our parents and wider family made the decision to take care of us: to devote huge amounts of time, love and money to our well being: not because we had done anything to deserve it – at that time, we were barely capable of holding a spoon let alone saying hello – but simply because we were related to them.

Nepotism is what ensures that a series of tantrums will be forgiven; that unpleasant traits of character will be overlooked; that we’ll be supported as we rant and rage in the small hours; that parents will forgive children who have not been especially good – and that children with somewhat disappointing parents will still, despite everything, show up for the holidays.

Because of the existence of family, we all have an experience of belonging not based on our beliefs or accomplishments or efforts (all of which may change or fail) but on something far purer and more irrevocable: the fact of our birth. In a world in which our employment generally hangs by a thread, in which we are judged swiftly and definitively by almost everyone, in our families at least, we know that we can’t be sacked, even if we don’t make very special conversation at dinner and have failed dismally in our careers. Given how fragile our standing in the eyes of others generally is, this is a source of huge ongoing emotional relief.

Within families, there’s often a welcome disregard not just for demerits, but for merits as well. Within the family, it may not really matter how well or how badly you’re doing in the world of money and work outside. The daughter who becomes a high court judge is probably not going to be loved any more than the son who has a little stall in the market selling origami dragons; the steely negotiator and demanding boss in charge of the livelihoods of thousands will be endlessly teased by their relatives for their poor taste in jumpers and tendency to belch at inopportune moments.

Although nepotism is genuinely misplaced at work, some version of nepotism is extremely important in our emotional lives overall because, however competent and impressive we might be in certain areas, there are inevitably going to be many points on which we’re distinctly feeble – and around which we urgently need at least a few people to be reliably patient with our failings and follies, to give us a second chance and a third and a fourth and to stay on our side even though (from a strict point of view) we don’t really deserve it at all. Good families aren’t blind to our faults; they just choose not to use these faults too harshly against us.

Once we define family like this, a strange thing can happen: we realise we don’t have to restrict the concept of family to its basic biological limits. In reality, anyone who takes a deeply supportive attitude towards us is automatically, in an extended sense, part of our ‘family’ – and we in our turn become a family member to anyone we treat in this reliably generous way. That is why the highest ethical goal remains stunningly simple in structure even if it is extraordinarily demanding in practice: to strive to treat all of humankind as if they were what they in fact already really are: members of one enormous family.  

– Knowledge

Our family members are probably the only people in the world who ever deeply understand key bits of us. Perhaps we don’t always get on better with them than with other people. They might not know the details of our current friendships or the precise state of our finances. But they have a knowledge of the underlying atmosphere of our lives that others will always lack.

When we make new acquaintances in adult life, we are necessarily meeting relatively late on in our respective developments. We might learn the broad outline of their childhood, but we won’t know what the holiday caravan or the beach house were really like, we won’t understand the details of the jokes, the smells, the textures of the carpets, the favourite foods, the finer-grained aspects of the emotions in circulation.

With family members, the knowledge tends to be the other way round. They might not know too much about our present and they weren’t necessarily always ideally wise or intelligent witnesses, but they were there – which gives them a definitive edge in grasping a lot about who we might be. Relationships in adult life are so often complicated by a lack of knowledge of our respective pasts. If we had been the  brother or sister to the loud, domineering figure over dinner, we would of course have understood that they were, still – at root – trying to get heard by their inattentive mother. And, as a result, we’d know the perfect response ( ‘I’m listening now’) that would instantly calm them down. Or if we had shared a bath with the tough exacting chief financial officer when we were three, we’d know that their highly rigorous, inquisitorial approach (which can appear so off-putting) was really nothing more than an attempt to stave off the chaos that surrounded him at home after the messy divorce. The full facts would make us so much readier to forgive.

At the same time, it is precisely the superior knowledge of family members that can make us want to run away from them. The past they have to hand is in danger of crushing our present possibilities and  hampers our attempts to develop in new ways. Yet after sufficient freedom and a satisfying number of clean starts, we may come to a resolved, distinctive gratitude towards our families; those unparalleled, imperfect but superlative archivists of our pasts; those who were always there.

– Safe Strangeness

One of the reliable horrors, but also profound advantages, of families is that they force us to spend time around people we would otherwise never have known about, wanted to meet, or thought we could get along with.

Our friendships and professional networks are hugely, but harmfully efficient at keeping us closely tied to a particular age, income and ideological bracket. We subtly yet firmly expel all those who do not flatter our world view. Family life does the opposite. It’s because of the unique structure of a family that an 82 year old woman and 4 year old boy can become friends or that a 56 year old dentist and an 11 year old schoolgirl can have an in depth conversation about a song or splash each other while swimming at the beach.

The family creates an environment in which there is enough safety to allow for encounters with radical strangeness. A brother-in-law will bring us into contact with life in the Russian diamond market; in families, the university researcher who has just published a paper on the carbon cycle in the Takayama forests of Japan gets to sit down for a long lunch with an accountant specialising in insolvency cases. Families create settings in which points of connection can be found amidst the obvious differences. We are led to do the dishes with someone whose political views are pretty much the opposite of our own but discover we agree deeply about how to rinse glasses properly. We rescue the picnic from an unexpected downpour – with someone who earns 83 times more than us serving as our loyal assistant. Prompted by our nieces and nephews, we get into an adults vs. children  water-gun fight, supported by a cousin whom our friends would dismiss as a long-haired loser and a waster but whom we realise is really rather lovely and great at spotting an opportunity for an ambush.

Families, at their best, hold out against generational segregation: we get to hear the political views of a great-aunt and encounter convictions that were widespread in 1973. We receive an update on the dramas of the junior hockey league; a younger cousin is agonising over school exams and tentatively exploring what they might like to do after turning 21; an uncle has recently retired and is trying to come to terms with a life without work; at the funeral of a grandparent there’s an eighteen month old niece crawling around – and we’re temporarily connected with the world of changing nappies and messy spoon feeding.

So often, otherness – other stages of life, other attitudes, other outlooks – are presented to us in tricky guises that make it hard for us to engage confidently with them. It’s not surprising, or intrinsically shameful, that we’re often awkward around people who seem not at all like us, but our picture of them (and hence also of ourselves) thereby gets unfortunately impoverished and inaccurate. When family life goes well, we are continually exposed – at first hand, and in a warm way – to ranges of human experience that might otherwise only ever be presented to us in caricatured and frightening ways in the course of our own lives. In its ideal versions, the wider family does two crucial things: it makes us see how interesting apparently off-putting people can be, if one gets the chance to go below the surface with them; and it connects up the whole long story of life, which it is otherwise so hard for us to keep properly in mind in the blinkered present.

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