A Family is What a Family Does

BOSTON—Last year, the raging custody fight in America was between the political parties. Republicans and Democrats spent the long campaign season arguing about which owned the family issues. Not only did Dan Quayle go after Murphy Brown, but the GOP chairman said Hillary Clinton was an unfit first family member because she’d written in defense of children’s rights.

This summer, the custody fights in the spotlight have been of a different and personal dimension. The ones that have riveted public attention have been between the DeBoers and the Schmidts, between the Mayses and the Twiggs. And we have watched through the eyes of the children.

First the country witnessed with horror as a tearful 1 1/2-year-old Jessica was forcibly transferred from her adoptive home to her biological parents. The 14-year-old Kimberly Mays, swapped at birth, went to court to divorce her genetic parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg.

In each case, the public has been overwhelmingly on the side of the children’s rights, children’s feelings and, by and large, their religious right, when the Twiggs’ lawyer said, in his closing statement, “God gave Ernest and Regina Twigg the right to decide what is best for Kimberly.”

What’s going on here? Some vast and sudden rewrite on the traditional family script? Or enough confusion to typify a family reunion?

Our attitudes toward families change slowly over decades and then instantly over a single story. They aren’t just mixed. They are chopped, diced, sliced, cuisinarted and reconstituted. A composite portrait of our opinions would look like a school cafeteria after a food fight.

Given the option, most Americans would still award every child a complete set of biological, loving, solvent, attentive parents for life. But after that consensus is put aside, the plates start flying. When the Census Bureau reported on unwed mothers this summer, the numbers were up across all ages and classes. But attitudes are up, down and all over the place.

Most Americans are dismayed at unwed teen-age mothers and splintered in their attitudes toward unwed older-and-wiser mothers. For the most part, they regard motherhood without wifedom as selfish if it is planned, and foolish if it is an accident, and dubious unless it is by adoption. Adoptive single mothers, in turn, get approval unless they have motives like Michelle Pfeiffer’s: “I thought, I don’t want some guy in my life forever who’s going to be driving me nuts.”

Welfare families in particular are regarded as parasites unless they were left destitute by men and are, therefore, victims. If however, the mothers have another child on welfare, they become “breeders.” Unwed fathers are variously labeled as sperm fathers, deadbeat dads, or in the case of fathers with custody, saints.

As for the bonds between parents and children, most believe that parents know best, but if they don’t buckle their children’s seat belts they should be arrested. We believe that it’s hard to create a haven in a heartless world, but if a child joins a gang or skips school, some cities punish the folks. We demand strong families, but all we give them to defend their children against violent messages is a list of parental warnings for movies and television.

Stitched together, we believe in parental authority and children’s rights; the right to spank and the wrong of abuse; the ties that bind and the times when they should be severed.

But somewhere in this huge, conflicting, muddle of opinions and deeply divided attitudes toward family, it is nevertheless possible to find common thread. To put it simply: Family is what family does.

So it is that Americans who argue about family values, agreed that Jessica should have stayed with the parents who raised her. The same Americans who believe in an abstraction called the sanctity of family, wait anxiously to see if a single teen-ager named Kimberly can free herself of her biological parents.

Case by case, tale by tale, we are building an emotional consensus that people earn their family stripes through sweat equity, through caring, and taking care. As the architects like to say, form follows function. So, gradually, does the form called family.