“Do you have anyone to help?”
This is the question on the lips of the moms at the suburban preschool my kids attend. And it means, have you asked someone—the caterer, the cleaning lady—to help cook and clean for the crowd?
The question is usually whispered because even though the community is affluent, the idea that you would need “help” to host Thanksgiving dinner or Rosh Hashanah or Passover is still slightly embarrassing. You have 10 or 15 or 20 people coming to your house and you need “help”? Where are your sisters and aunts and cousins?
It’s a good question and one I have been thinking about myself more recently. Of course, for many people these days, Thanksgiving has become Friendsgiving, which is to say that extended family is not nearby, travel is expensive and so people hunker down with their friends for the holiday. If there are small children present, each nuclear family will be minding its own. And at any rate, friends show up when it’s time to eat, not 24 or 48 hours before when it’s time to start cooking.
But another factor is that our extended families are shrinking. As the birthrate has dipped below the replacement rate (and remains even lower for the upper middle class), that big warm dinner with family squeezed around a giant table is less and less common. The baby boomers might still have two or three siblings, but after that generation it starts to fall off pretty rapidly—to the point where we now have books touting the joys of having one child or none at all.
Having smaller families was supposed to simplify things.
Having smaller families was supposed to simplify things, to make life less expensive and less complicated. But having smaller extended families and living further away from them have made matters harder. It’s not just that there are fewer people to take care of aging parents. It’s also that the safety net for working mothers is no longer there. Which means children go to daycare instead of being watched by Grandma, and every childcare glitch turns into a full-scale crisis.
It also means that a lot of the tasks that parents used to enjoy doing with their children are harder to accomplish. How do I patiently prepare food with my seven-year-old and my five-year-old while at the same time making sure my two-year-old hasn’t gotten into trouble, all while being the only adult at home at dinner time? How can we spend our weekends planting gardens when we are trying to accomplish all of the errands that didn’t happen during the week?
Sure, some of the problem is the frenetic pace of modern life, but we also have to acknowledge that being around extended family forces us to slow things down, to hang out more at home and enjoy the spontaneity of relatives popping over. Many young parents would see “Everybody Loves Raymond” as a dream, not the comic nightmare portrayed by the sitcom. Instead we are left with one or two times a year when the whole family gathers, when we put on a show for our guests and think about paying someone to make it all go smoothly.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a columnist for the New York Post and author of ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.