My husband and I recently decided to remodel our bathroom. For many women, the expectation of choosing new colors and materials may seem energizing, but for me, it’s draining. Ask me to rappel down a waterfall, and I will strap on a harness and follow behind; ask me to pick out bathroom tile and I will break out into a cold sweat. Since my interest in home decorating is lukewarm at best, my efforts in this regard have been a cursory nod to social norms, simply to prevent my children from public ridicule. My recent foray into home decorating has left me thinking about what constitutes adequate shelter. I have visited large, aesthetically appealing homes oozing with coldness, criticism and unmet expectations; In contrast, I’ve been in small cement boxes in India, where warmth, generosity and laughter bounced off the roughly hewn walls. The difference was largely within the relationships.
The Shelter from the Storm
Mary Pipher’s book, “The Shelter of Each Other,” describes families as “the shelter from the storm.” As human beings, we are wired to connect with others. Families create natural environments in which children can benefit from healthy attachment relationships with parents and even siblings. Couples also benefit from safe romantic attachment relationships, building confidence and independence from the secure base of a safe marriage. When our safety is threatened in the broader social context, these relationships can sooth and comfort, restore confidence and foster exploration into the unknown. These safe familial relationships are more important than ever in our fast-paced technological world in which we have more ability to connect with people than ever before, but somehow the quality of our most important relationships has suffered. It always feels to me as if we are connected a mile wide but only an inch deep. We need a return to nurturing these close relationships.
Knowing that I could Reach Him, Helped me Face the Unknown
A few years ago I traveled to Beijing, China, with several professors and students gathered for the first ever Sino-American Marriage and Family Therapy Conference. I spent two decades reading many personal accounts of the turbulent political transformations in China and was excited to see the country firsthand. Once I arrived at Beijing Normal University, I set up my room and ventured out by myself to buy water. The sights and sounds seemed harsh. I was unprepared for my inability to communicate with anyone, naively thinking that most Chinese people would speak some English; worse, I couldn’t read any of the storefront signs or labels, since everything was written in Chinese. I immediately felt alone and somewhat dismayed at my inability to carry on a conversation. It felt claustrophobic. I am not typically a highly anxious person in novel environments, but in this case, surrounded by strangers who didn’t know me, I felt threatened. As soon as I purchased my water, I returned to my room and started texting my husband on the other side of the globe. His response was immediate and soothing. Just knowing that I could reach him, helped me face the unknown. After texting him, I returned alone to the streets of Beijing. After that, I stayed close to my Taiwanese friends, who willingly translated for me. Eventually, I met up with my oldest son who had been living in rural China and knew enough Mandarin to get us around and negotiate in stores. Exploring with my son allowed me to relax even more. Something about the fact that I was with a family member helped me feel safe. Heck, I even learned to say, “Thank you,” in Mandarin … sometimes … if I tilted my voice just right.
Redecorating our Relationships
When I see how much time and energy goes into decorating our physical shelters, I wonder about the concept of redecorating our relationships. This was brought into sharp focus for me as I was saying goodbye to my father on his deathbed. He had been my biggest fan and supporter. He had an intuitive sense about me, and could always tell when I was experiencing one of my episodes of discontent. His last words to me, literally, were, “I love you. You have everything you need to be happy. You have a husband who loves you as much as anyone I have ever seen love his wife. You have a beautiful family.” He had always been a safe attachment figure for me growing up, and my husband had many of his characteristics. His words resonated with me and reminded me that our most important shelters are our close interpersonal relationships.
Protective Function Families Offer
I remember a cartoon from the early ’90s that displayed a banner strung across a room that read something like: “Annual Meeting: Adult Children of Functional Families.” The room was filled with chairs, with only one person sitting in the audience. The obvious message was that functional families are the exception. While somewhat amusing, this disregards the protective function families offer in various ways. Mary Pipher’s book was published in 1996, before the advent of ubiquitous cell phone use and texting. Indeed, since her call to strengthen our families in a disconnecting social context, our cultural has only become more fragmenting. Our family shelters are more important than ever.