The Myth of the Perfect Family


Flipping through a cooking magazine recently, I stopped to read an article about chef Nancy Fuller’s Christmastime meals and traditions. Every year, Nancy and her husband host their two dozen or so children and grandchildren in their upstate New York farmhouse, and the family “spends almost every second together,” according to the article—taking sleigh rides, playing hockey in the barn, having slumber parties and a big holiday dinner. “When I look around the table at everyone, it almost makes me cry,” Nancy is quoted as saying.

Part of me scoffs at this picture-perfect image, but another part of me longs for it. Articles like this, TV shows like Parenthood, and movies like Dan in Real Life play on our deeply rooted desires for belonging and for the lifelong security of an interdependent tribe. They’re idealized depictions of loving extended families whose members might not always agree on everything but always find their way back to each other after a conflict, and have each other’s back no matter what. It’s no wonder we’re drawn toward these scenarios, in a time when Americans spend an average of only 18 hours per month—less than an hour a day—with family members.

It’s often around the holidays when we feel the tug of what we’re missing, or imagine we’re missing. In a study of adults estranged from their parents or siblings, 90 percent reported finding the hol…

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