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The Importance of Strong Family Narratives

PUBLISHED: April 9, 2013


I have a friend who is a professional archivist. Her master’s in library science has led her to a career she loves in helping clients (mostly corporate ones, but the occasional rich person, too) sort, categorize, and store their materials, which can vary from a few sheets of paper to thousands of books.

As I recently listened to her describe a particularly challenging problem (constructing a wooden crate for a vintage vending machine), I thought about the plastic totes crammed with my daughters’ schoolwork, art projects, and clippings that I’ve amassed during the last two decades. Mothers—we are the original archivists!

While that observation may not surprise my fellow parents—all people bringing up children collect a greater or lesser amount of memorabilia—I think it’s worth asking why we archive. For example, my husband’s baby book, purchased by his Midwestern maternal grandmother, is no mere young-parent project, with pages for milk teeth and locks of hair. No, this baby book follows the owner throughout his or her life, even providing a space for an “Old Age Photo” (which is really quite cheering, as it seems to imply that the owner will be compos mentis enough to fill in that page).

However, over those same years, I started hearing something from our own daughters.

“I don’t know anything about our family,” the eldest would say. “What is our story?” asked her younger sister.

It turns out these are not idle questions: Author Bruce Feiler has discovered, after years of experience and research, that “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

In a New York Times piece developed from his new book The Secrets of Happy Families, Feiler explains why researchers have found that students with these strong family narratives succeed. It’s because parents and other relatives have found a way to model resilience through storytelling. In other words, things go well and things go not so well, but we’ve always stuck together.

My husband and I are terrific at the “sticking together” part of this equation. We’ve been married for over two decades, have moved ten times overall, and are fortunate enough to still be each other’s main squeeze. We adore our children and spend a great deal of time with them. However, they still felt disenfranchised from our stories—and their own. When she was seven or eight, my elder daughter asked me why her baby book was incomplete. “I would like to remember my life too, you know,” she said.

At the time I laughed, thinking how adorably indignant she was. But now I realize she was asking for something more than a book filled with phrases and clippings; after all, my husband’s aforementioned baby book is hardly complete, yet he has a strong sense of “family narrative.” This kind of plotline is reinforced less in baby books and more through dinner-table conversations and reminiscences, as we tell and re-tell stories about family history, as well as detailed stories of childhood escapades (those are the most fun). Feiler notes that experts feel strong families don’t just talk through and solve problems; they use that information to create positive stories about themselves. He writes, “When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship.”

In a way, an “Old Age Photo” is the very model of overcoming hardship—it shows that you’ve made it to a certain point in life. Mothers and fathers are often very good about keeping track of things like report cards, concert programs, and school photos, even if not all of those wind up taped down on the pages of scrapbooks. Will this change as scrapbooks become Facebook or Pinterest pages, or something else no one has thought of yet? Perhaps. However, what Feiler and other experts now know is that while archives (analog or digital) are wonderful memory prompts, it is the narrative we weave from those prompts that truly matters.

That’s why one of the other sections in my husband’s baby book may be truly important; it’s a list called “First Instances.” Along with “First Haircut” and “First Sentences” are things like “First Conflict” and “First Trip to the Hospital.” The bad happens along with the good, and both deserve to be recorded. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Turns out the truth is closer to “Real families are happy and unhappy by turns.”




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