“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This is the opening line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. It’s a great opening line for a novel, no argument about that. (Although my own personal favorite is: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” from Orwell’s 1984. If I get to go with the first two lines of a novel, my vote goes to: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” –Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
The line does its job setting up Tolstoy’s novel brilliantly, but the quote itself gets tossed around too often as a great truth. If I dwell on this quote too long it irritates me. This seems like a good forum for getting this annoyance off my chest, so if anyone feels like speaking up on behalf of Tolstoy, go for it, but here is my reasoning why this quote has it wrong.
I will acknowledge that there may be universal qualities to happiness that could make it indistinguishable from one person to another, but the same can be argued of pain. Basic guidelines exist for trying to help unhappy families, so in some ways they are probably all alike too. There are whole support groups that can nod in empathy when someone stands up and describes a family experience marred by alcohol abuse or drug addiction. For many, struggling with a dysfunctional family is easier when they discover they are not unique.
For people who do not have a first hand experience with a happy family, they may in fact all seem the same. There is trust and smiling and happy families usually lack drama. It may seem bland or superficial. If happiness is a prize, then defending happy families may seem as unnecessary as award shows often do, where equally beautiful and successful people congratulate one another on being beautiful and successful. Why continue to congratulate winners?
But this quote rubs me the wrong way precisely because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a happy family even is. I feel as if a judgment is being cast and the true nature of particular families is being dismissed as uninteresting and unworthy of consideration. I disagree. Happy families are not all alike.
I gave this a lot of thought this summer when I was visiting a friend of mine in rural Ohio. I love her little family. She and her husband have chosen a life for their two little girls that has much to recommend it. They live on a large piece of land in the country where their kids run free and spot frogs and grow cucumbers. They watch crops grow, can play with the hose all day if they want to, and see a million stars at night. The girls get a lot of attention and go to school and art class very close to home. By any measure these kids are thriving. They are smart and funny and lively and I am always impressed when I hear about what they are up to. As a family they enjoy cartoons, require a car, and have a loose eating schedule. I couldn’t live how they live, but I understand the appeal.
My brother and his wife live in New York City. Their daughter is also thriving, but the choices they have made to provide her with the opportunites she enjoys in the city are very different. My niece’s world involves subway commutes, no television, a night sky with a solitary star, and by necessity a shorter leash. She is one of the brightest, most charming children I’ve ever known, and when I visit my brother’s home each spring it’s always exciting. The living space is tight, but there is a whole world of museums and parks and stores right outside the door. It’s an amazing life. It’s not one I could live happily.
My world is somewhere in between. I like my quiet neighborhood in a moderately sized city. I like to visit the country, but it’s too isolated for me. I like visiting big cities too, but I would not be happy there on a permanent basis. Too much motion in every direction. So what I was thinking about this summer while I relaxed on my friend’s porch in Ohio was how the different needs of specific families manifest themselves in the environment they settle into. The things that make my friend’s family happy and able to achieve what they do would make my brother and his family very uncomfortable. I also cannot imagine my friend trying to raise her kids in New York without its driving her crazy. I could be completely wrong in these assumptions, but I don’t think it’s chance these families have ended up where they have. They are happy in markedly different ways and their choices reflect that.
I have a friend from high school who has a husband and three kids. A few years ago we were all at my grandmother’s cottage on vacation and I passed the room they were all sleeping in right as they were settling the kids into bed. I heard her say in soothing maternal tones, “They’re magically delicious,” and one of her daughters piped up, “Lucky Charms.” Then she said, “Golden honey, just a touch, with grahams golden wheat,” and another child said, “Golden Grahams.” It went on like this for awhile, and when the kids were down for the night and my friend came out to join the adults I asked her what that was all about. She laughed and explained that that was just something they all did in their house. They recited commercials while the others guessed what cereals they were for. She’d never realized how odd that must look from the outside. That is a happy family unlike any other and I’m glad to know them.
There are families that are happiest when they are hunting together, others when they watch sports or make music or go hiking. Some families know things are going right when everyone’s talking, and others know bliss when things are silent. There are families that stay amused by being sarcastic, and others that would find that appalling. I’ve met many happy families that I admire and have learned from, but never one I’ve envied. My happy family is just right for me. There isn’t another one like it anywhere. I cherish it and appreciate it for the unique entity it is. Tolstoy should have gotten out more.
My second least favorite quote? Five minutes before we head out to school in the morning: “Mom? Can you help me with my homework?”