A Resilient Families Blog: Families Are Messy
by Christie Manning–
This is something I find myself saying with some regularity…to signify the affection I have for the unique imperfections in this area of human relationships…to sum up a truism that is ever-present in family work…to allay the frustration and sense of overwhelm that sometimes arises for those who deal daily with the complexities of trying to help families build better lives for themselves. The messiness of families is part of what I love about the work I do, but also what makes it so challenging. There is the wonderful kind of messiness, that comes with high levels of activity and discord arising from normal circumstances like scheduling conflicts, less than perfect organizational skills, quirky relatives and sibling rivalries.
To an uninformed outsider, these things in combination may seem chaotic, even a sign that something is wrong. But if you look closely, you can see warmth, humor, creativity and the personal growth of all family members in spite of, or even because of the messiness. And then there is the disharmonious, or even dysfunctional, messiness that can happen in a family during times of crisis or in the face of significant challenges, when the family as a whole lacks sufficient personal or interpersonal resources to counter-balance life’s demands. Even then, though, if you look carefully, you can find strengths and a desire for something better or different that can be the building blocks toward a different way of being. And what constitutes the wonderful kind of messiness for one family may be seen as something akin to dysfunction for another family.
What I’m really getting at is that, for families, there is no one way of “doing” family life correctly. And for funders and social service agencies, messiness means that no one program or set of resources can help all families achieve their ideal family life and the well-being of all family members. Of course, there are times where there is a clear imperative for assistance to the family to help its members meet their basic needs, so I’m not referring to crisis intervention services that are critical to ensuring the well-being of families at times of acute need or crisis. I am, however, reflecting on the broader scope of family life and the overall goals of family work.
Families have their own unique personalities, rhythms and developmental trajectories, comprised of a complex interplay of their members’ individual needs, talents, and states of development, all in the context of the communities in which they live and the resources at their disposal.
This poses a unique challenge to those engaged in family work in an age of outcomes orientation, as becomes more apparent to me every day. As I attempt to learn from successful initiatives taking place across the country and also talk with folks engaged in working with families out in the community, I am continuously struck by how complex this work is. An initiative in Indianapolis with demonstrated success in enhancing the financial stability and general well-being of families with children may hold some important lessons for those working toward similar goals here in Greater Cleveland. However, there are no guarantees that an evidence-based model imported from another community will have the same ability to engage a critical mass of families and achieve similar outcomes in our community. Sometimes what it seems to take to accomplish this is the “right person”, with an ability to build trusting relationships and a deep commitment to helping families, who happens to be in the right place, at the right time.
How do we discover which key factors influence successful replication, and which elements of a proven model need to be adapted from one community to another, based on the evolving constellation of family dynamics occurring in the context of, and influencing the flavor of, the specific community of which they are a part? How do we become more sophisticated in our ability to recognize, support and even intentionally introduce the “right person” – the relationship builder – in a particular community?
Perhaps the discovery will come from further intentional conversations between those who seek to implement family programs on a large scale across our broader community, and those who work on a more localized level with the constellation of the needs and strengths families present with each day. Such further conversations depend upon a shared language and vision amongst all engaged, which I believe to be part of the benefit of the Strengthening Families protective factors framework upon which the Saint Luke’s Foundation’s Resilient Families strategy draws heavily.
The Foundation’s Resilient Families program strategy calls out some of those common elements that help families keep their messiness wonderful rather than dysfunctional, albeit possibly in very different ways from one family to the next. The program strategy is flexible by design, and its usefulness by service providers and others seeking to support families, likewise, relies on the user’s ability to be flexible and recognize the presence or absence of protective factors in a particular family’s trajectory and community context.
Whatever their specific circumstances and particular family developmental stage, all families need reliable access to concrete support in times of need; an ability to recognize when and how to seek help when needed; a network of social supports to turn to in good times and bad; and a pipeline to information about parenting and all aspects of child development across the developmental trajectory. The presence of these personal and community resources allows families to manifest the wonderful kind of messiness, when faced with circumstances that could otherwise result in prolonged crisis and delay family members’ progress toward achieving their full potentials.