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Family: Delayed Life Transitions

The The Vanier Institute of the Family maintains a series of papers exploring Contemporary Family Trends. In Jean Vanier: Community Belonging I briefly explored Jean Vanier's important ideas surrounding the intersection of community and belonging as he presents them in his book Becoming Human. The various Contemporary Family Trends described reveal that the idea of family is quite diverse and is intimately linked to its environment. A family is more than a set of biological connections; a family is a form of felt meaning. In Vanier's terms, a family is a kind of community that is nurtured by ideas about belonging. In this sense, family is an environment for deep communication. We may even think about a family as a kind of environment for learning, and perhaps even a network of connections and associations.

When we think about our own family, what is it that comes to mind? Is there an ideal sense of family that we seek to attain? I suspect that it is not possible to generalize answers to these questions. With respect to learning, the influence of family and its effects on family members seems to go largely unnoticed. At the same time, the dynamics of a family have a clear and intimate connection with learning...

Families and Delayed Life Transitions

The standard notion of a life transition in the article Delayed Life Transitions is summarized as follows:

Cohorts born between the world wars experienced a transition to adulthood that was compressed into a relatively short period of completing formal education, entering the labour force, leaving home, establishing a nuclear household and having a first child.
- Delayed Life Transitions: Highlights

All families evolve in unique kinds of social, cultural and technological environments. In today's terms, we might think of a family as a kind of network, or perhaps even a network-learning environment. While there are variations on the pattern of living described above, it seems to me that it is relatively commonplace and can serve as one possible way to explore life transitions. If we introduce delays, then, we are changing the durations associated with the phrase, "compressed into a relatively short period."

The underlying premise of the article is that new technologies can have dramatic effects on the nature of the family unit. For example, a technology that makes pregnancies possible at age 60 introduces a delayed life transition:

In looking forward to the year 2100 as editor of La démographie québécoise: enjeux du XXIe siècle, Piché proposes that there will be at least as much change as we have seen in the past 100 years (Piché and Le Bourdais, 2003). He proposes that technology may make pregnancies common at age 60. In his case, he says that it would have been good to have a first child at age 45, given career priorities, and all the work that needed to be done when he was a young professional. While advances in technology allowing further delays in childbearing can certainly be envisaged, might one also envisage a world that was less centred on work, and where family had more priority? Rather than adjusting reproduction to suit the needs of production, might we not also make adjustments to benefit reproduction? For instance, is it always important to maximize the number of people working, at the expense of family time and leisure?
- Delayed Life Transitions: Trends and Implications

The notion of introducing a technology that delayed childbirth in order to increase worker productivity is offensive in the sense that worker productivity, and therefore economics, are given priority over childbearing and family. Like the author, I find this notion inept and frankly quite stupid. However, are we not already in that "delayed" space in some ways? Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to it as a "disturbed" or "fragmented" space. While people still do have children during their (supposed) years of highest production, these children often spend more time in daycare centres than family environments. The parents are often driven by a two-income lifestyle that fragments their family time into discrete pieces. The idea of quality time it seems to me is really a retrieval of the desire to belong, and possibly an excuse for not belonging enough.

While the negative side of delayed childbearing via technological intervention is clear, have we not already created a disturbed and highly fragmented space for childrearing?

Life Transitions: Questioning the Underlying Assumptions of Lifestyle

One of the most important things that Delayed Life Transitions does is brings some underlying lifestyle assumptions to the foreground. The assumption presented here is focused on the compression across being educated - finding work - leaving home - establishing a nuclear family - and having the first child. Of course, there are numerous kinds of influences that cause trends in this pattern so there is no one way to proceed through it. But if we were lifestyle designers, we might take these underlying assumptions and alter them.

The stronger negatives are at the societal level, because delayed early life transitions bring lower fertility and population aging. Accommodations to population aging are more complex, including promoting more economic productivity at older ages, partly by reducing the benefits of retirement without leaving stranded those who are unable to work for health or other reasons. Population aging affects a number of policy questions ranging from pensions and other transfers, to education and labour market issues. Hicks (2003b) argues in particular that we need to introduce greater life course flexibility in our systems of education and work.
- Delayed Life Transitions: Trends and Implications

Retirement: Plunging Into New Activities questions the underlying assumptions made about retirement in much the same way. There is an assumption that retirement is something that happens after work. Or, more to the point, that retirement is something that happens only after work. Often, assumptions like these lie hidden in the background of our daily activities - an invisible ground in our minds. When they are brought to our attention we place ourselves in a position to explore, articulate and potentially design new alternatives.

The idea of promoting greater lifecourse flexibility in work and education is one that makes a great deal of sense to me. When we step outside of our own social and cultural ideologies, there is no meaningful basis to assume that we all must get educated - find a career - retire in the prescribed manner.

Family Belonging

If we belong to a family, what precisely does that mean? How is it that economic progress supplants family life? Should ideas like delayed life transitions be filtered through meaningful ideas about belonging? It seems that family is something we try to fit in - to schedule - to "balance" with work. The basic problem here, to my thinking, is that the underlying priorities in life are misguided. That is, we have a tendency to place material progress above family belonging. Perhaps it should be work that is the something we try to fit in - to schedule - to "balance" with family.

In A Sacred Balance David Suzuki describes the possibility that the brain is really a storyteller. He refers to this capacity as a neural narrative (see Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience). He states that these narratives can become "a story [that] has lost its meaning, its purpose and its ability to touch and inform." With respect to our natural environment, it is clear that notions of material progress bias our neural narratives, our stories. Perhaps much the same can be said about family and material progress. It may be that the stories that have become physically encoded into our brains require, what Richard Restak refers to as rewiring (see also Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience).

In the end it we are questioning is it is we want to belong to. Belonging, as an end unto itself, is not always productive or beneficial. We can learn to belong to people, places, and things in the presence or absence of love. It is the character and personality of belonging that matters. If we want to belong to a family in the sense that Jean Vanier describes belonging then by default it is an act of unconditional love.

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Mid-life crisis. In my own life I can say that crisis has not been reserved for mid-life only. I'm in my mid-forties now and I can say that I have had a good deal of experience with crises of various kinds, and the transitions through those crises forced me to stand up and look directly into the unknown. Now that I'm in "mid-life" - assumming I have that much time left in life which is a dangerous assumption to make - crises seem to be a very natural and normal part of the flow. Even a necessary part of the flow.

To be honest, I've never really understood what a "mid-life" crisis is. Well, I do realize it is a kind of awakening or realization that occurs somewhere in the middle that forces us to ask the question, "What am I doing with my life?" How this gets reserved for something called "mid-life" is a mystery to me. The very idea of "mid-life" is somewhat mysterious. How do we know when we are in something called "mid-life?"

By the time I was thrity years old I was divorced and was feeling the amputation of my own two kids from my life. They were three and five years old at the time. Looking back, I can say that this one event was the single greatest crisis in my life - like your firends, a mid-life crisis in my early thirties. Was I prepared for the transition? Not at all. However, that transition as uncomfortable and horrific as it was for me on an interior level it served to move me in new directions - kicking and screaming - unknown directions - directions I hadn't planned on. It was really the first time I had to face life as mystery - not just face it - really feel it on the inside. Perhaps, as Joseph Campbell has said numerous times, it is the mystery most of us remain unprepared for.

I liked your comment that it's not just about you anymore. Today, the relationship I have with both of my kids is very strong - perhaps unusually so. It's important that both my children remain connected to their inner source of passion and inspiration and that this is the guiding force in their life - not societal or old-fashioned parent expectations. My son (now twenty years old) recently mentioned to me that he liked hanging out with me and that many of his friends don't hang out with there dads like we do. My daughter (eighteen now) and I talk all the time - about everything. With both my kids I'm an open book - weaknesses and mistakes included. And this is how we go through life together.

It is interesting, isn't it? I got an e-mail from an older gentleman in my small town who seems to be studying (as a hobby) the idea of the mid-life crisis, mostly motivated by the tumult of his own. I've been wondering whether the mid-life crisis has been delayed as well (due to having kids later, better health, etc.) or whether it's been sort of distributed across transition points at many different ages.

We have a couple of friends right now going through what could only be characterized as mid-life crises in their 30s, mostly a result of emerging from having babies and finding out that their identities and relationships are in shambles and they don't know what to do about it. The twenty-somethings who emerge from university with crusing debt and unrealistic expectations and retreat to their parents' basement are often in a similar type of crisis. I don't think we're particularly well prepared for these kinds of transitions.

I suppose I can relate a little more to kids not fitting into the picture. I didn't really consider parenthood a desireable option when I was in my 20s, and when we had a 2-yr-old and a newborn, people would say to me, "oh, I bet you don't even remember what it was like before you had kids! ". And I'd always have to let them down with my honest response: "Yes, I remember quite clearly what it was like, and it was amazing." From a lifestyle perspective, I found that time quite difficult...actually, it pretty much sucked for me. Now the girls are older and I feel more like you -- I'm comfortable with how we all fit into our picture and it's not just all about me anymore.

Two interesting scenarios. On one hand the delay results in the denial of having our own offspring. On the other hand the delay of parenting, or perhaps the extension of the teenage years, results in giving our own offspring away.

The phrase, "the baby doesn't really fit into the picture" is the one the caught me the most. It's all quite hard for me to understand since my two kids are a very big part of my "picture." In fact, it would be hard to imagine a lifestyle without them.

Bringing new life into the world seems to have a closer alignment with trade and commerce.

My wife sees the result of these delayed life transitions all the time. Most of the adopting couples she works with are in their early 40s and have all their ducks in a row -- dual careers, travelling experiences, paid-off mortgages (or nearly) on big houses and carefully designed lifestyles. At some point they realize that they want kids too, but it's been deferred. Many have fertility issues when they start trying, and although you can't guarantee that they're all age-related, it's certainly a factor for some. These people can afford to adopt (some interesting ethical issues there, too) from anywhere in the world, so they do, often several times.

On the flipside of that delayed transition, many of the birth moms giving up their babies for adoption are not fitting the old teenage-oops stereotypes anymore either. They're older (mid-20s), working, and tend to have at least some family support. The baby just doesn't really fit into the picture, usually because there's no dad around and it would be economically difficult. I'm not suggesting that these decisions are being made lightly, or for the wrong reasons...but perhaps it's an extension of the twixter/yeppie/twenty-something phenomenon that makes those years more like the teenage years used to be. Another delayed transition.

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