Thursday, March 21, 2013

I Sense a Disturbance in the Nuclear Family Force



by MAB (bio)

Behold the nuclear family.


I was thinking about this metaphor recently: the family as an atom. I guess my incomplete thoughts began to crystallize when I discovered the interesting "atomic structure" of my son's friend's family. But more on that later.

First, let's consider the metaphor a bit. I know this is a silly thing to do, since most metaphors break down under even the slightest scrutiny, but in this case at least it helped me dust off a few neural connections made 20 years ago in high school chemistry. Apologies in advance to those who know more about this than me (and there are many of you), I will likely make some wild leaps through my flawed logic and incomplete knowledge, but hope to have some fun along the way.

So, if the family is an atom then I guess the parents are the nucleus, mom is a proton and dad is a neutron. Or vice versa, I'm confused about this. I made the dad the neutron since (1) it weighs a bit more and (2) from the pulpit on Mother's Day I seem to hear that mothers are the biggest force for positive good in the world. On that sentiment I'm neutral (ha!). That leaves the kids as electrons orbiting the parents. In our house, at least, they still weigh less than us, which fits the model, and when they aren't playing video games they orbit us in antics and laughter. To take the metaphor further, we often know their position but not their momentum (what will he "be" when he grows up?), and when we try to inquire into their lives we inevitably change their trajectory. So that's the uncertainty principle and the observer effects in action. I think this metaphor could go further with quantum mechanics invoking fields of influence, etc., but I'll leave that up to the theoretical physicists. Same goes for the Higgs Boson as the God particle, that's just too easy-hard.

That makes the traditional family a Helium atom, which depending on the number of your children, leaves you in a variety of states:

Electron children           Family charge and notes
0 Your charge is -1 and you are eagerly seeking a child
1 Your charge is 0, you're noble but your kid is spoiled - everyone knows that
2 Your charge is +1 
3 Your charge is +2, beyond this point there is a good chance your kids will fly out of orbit
... ...

Note that if you are single you are a Hydrogen atom and your electron is a dog or a cat. Or, if you are divorced, I guess it could be a child.

Okay, that was all probably ridiculously over-thought and even callous at times. So I think I should stop with the metaphor and just use normal words to describe "exotic" elements I've seen over the years, elements that defy the standard model of nuclear families.

My first experience with exotic elements was when I was about eight years old. I was sent to live for three months with an aunt who happened to sleep with her best friend every night. Being slow on the uptake, I didn't know until I was about 12 years old when my brothers told me that she was a lesbian. My lesbian aunts both treated me wonderfully mind you, and although my family was going through some difficult times they helped me through it all with patience, love and understanding. They later adopted a boy and I like to think that having me for three months gave them the courage to adopt.

Shortly after that experience, when I was about 10, our family befriended a homosexual therapist from Hollywood who drove his awesome sports car all the way out to our very small town in South Central Utah. We later visited his swank apartment in Hollywood where he was living with another man. This was the 80's and we were conservative Mormons, so you can imagine what an impression he left on us. He was of course a very genuine, thoughtful and gracious man who helped our family tremendously through some rough times.

Next up are my grandparents. They divorced when I was about 14, lived separately for a while, then found out how lonely and difficult it was since half the things they used to rely on each other for didn't get done. So, they moved back in together. They fixed up the basement in their home and grandpa lived on the bottom floor and grandma lived on the top floor.

On a separate but related note, we recently struck up a conversation at a dinner party with a married couple who lives in an apartment and lives similarly to my grandparents, except they never divorced. This mature couple lives quite happily on separate floors and said that sometimes he goes down to her floor for the night and sometimes she comes up to his. I admit I was quite intrigued by their story and wonder if it would help a lot of marriages to have a bit more distance.

But the most interesting arrangement is one I've come across recently. My youngest has found a new best friend at school and I've been dropping him off and picking him up for playdates. As it turns out, his new friend and his brother alternate living with either their two partner mothers or their two partner fathers all of whom live in the same neighborhood. I don't know the details yet, but I think the adults are all great friends and decided to raise a couple of boys between the four of them.

These are all interesting, non-traditional arrangements I've experienced. I know there are many more ways to combine the elements these days. So, MMM readers, have you had any good, bad or interesting experiences with uncommon atomic arrangements?

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