Throughout time, people have disagreed with the people they love. Issues of childrearing, money, faith, culture, religious practices and politics have, on occasion, divided households and hardened hearts. You might immediately think of the present political environment, but this isn’t the first time in history that issues have created emotional schisms among family members and friends
Sometimes, if the animosity has been put to rest, it’s best to leave the story alone like the proverbial sleeping dog. There’s nothing to be gained from revisiting and possibly re-igniting tensions.
However, there are also times that, if handled carefully, such stories can bring socio-historical context and understanding to family dynamics and individual personalities. Read on for several ideas for telling these sensitive stories. (See also When NOT to Share.)
Put Stories of Divided Households in Historical Context
Describe the event within the framework of historical perspective. What do historians say about that time, place, or socio-political climate?
In 1968 for instance, the Vietnam war and civil rights divided households, as well as the nation. That year, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace ran for the White House, creating tensions that spilled over to the playground at the South Carolina elementary school I attended.
The playground bully—a girl by the way, we were quite progressive in that—favored Nixon over Humphrey. She stood at the bottom of the slide, demanding you name the candidate your parents would vote for before launching yourself down. Those who had said “Humphrey” would be pushed off into a mud puddle as they reached the bottom. Pro-Nixon sliders, in contrast, were helped over the mud puddle.
I passed safely. At seven, the only thing I knew about politics was that my parents usually disagreed over them. Loudly. I figured one of them, at least, was for Nixon.
Not even remembering the bully’s name, I can only speculate why she felt so strongly about Nixon. However, it’s not hard to imagine the adult discussions she’d overheard. That year, the nation had seen both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinated. There were race riots and war protests. Per Wikipedia, it was also “the first election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had led to mass enfranchisement of racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South.”
And if the children were behaving badly over the election, it’s not hard to imagine how the adults were acting.
Explain How Individuals were a Product of their Times.
I’m not suggesting white-washing or revising history or defending past actions. However, I am suggesting that we make an effort to illuminate the times in which ancestors or family members lived—particularly in their formative years. Absentee fathers, for instance, saw themselves as good providers. Strict mothers prided themselves as installing a reliable moral compass in their kids.
If we only hold their actions up to a 21st century lamp, these family members or ancestors don’t look attractive. But usually, our goal isn’t to indict or judge, but to promote understanding. Do a little research so that you’re not unintentionally misrepresenting their stories. The fact that a daughter was made to work instead of attending college so that she could put her brother through school was unquestionably unfair by today’s standards. But the mother that made that decision might have simply been a product of her times, upbringing, and culture.
How did family members get beyond the issues? Did the issues resolve or become irrelevant?
How did the divided households come together? Did individuals agree to disagree? Did wounds heal with time or was healing hard work? Make sure you tell that story too.
What stories have you struggled with portraying in the correct light? Did you write it? How did you decide how you were going to approach the past?