On “Original Family”

I recently came across a fraught and troubling term: the “original family”. Apparently it’s a term of art among therapists to distinguish family generations: for example, my dad, mom, brothers and I from, say, my sons, their present and future wives and my grandchildren. What’s implicit, though, is differentiation and exclusion, an assumption that the “original family” – mom, dad and siblings – stands separate and apart from an adult child’s immediate family, as if conflict and choices about priorities were settled in favor of immediate family. The catch, as always, is how to think about the priorities and when one – say a parent’s illness – demands time and even more potently, responsibilities. It is a category error that may make it easier for therapists to classify issues and to disregard the real, deep and emotional relationships between generations. It obscures the personal baggage we all carry and, frankly, excuses neglect towards elderly and extended family and relieves an adult child of responsibility and guilt in the face of negligence. The stresses of modern life, the constraints on private and immediate family time are real and ubiquitous. We may live in a time of loose definitions and easy categories, but “original family” is one we should be rid of. Family, original and immediate, is family, with all the collective varieties of personalities and their human limits implicit and with the unqualified love that binds generations together.

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