We all know what a dysfunctional family looks like. Most of us come from one. In my college psychology textbook, the composite dysfunctional family looks like this: the dad (or mom) is an alcoholic, the mom (or dad) tries to hide it and becomes co-dependent, the oldest child tries heroically to compensate for the parents’ weaknesses and becomes neurotic as a result, the middle child rebels or runs away and becomes the black sheep, and the youngest child tries to win affection by becoming the family jester. Sound familiar? Problems in this family are not resolved but are hidden, avoided, passed off and/or fought loudly about. The parents’ baggage is handed dutifully over to the children, so they can carry it guiltily into their own marriages and families, merging it with the baggage of a spouse, and passing the combined load onto the children, and so forth and so on, time without end.
But what is the alternative? What is a functional family? Maybe it’s so rare or so boring the psychology textbook didn’t see the need to illustrate it, or maybe I didn’t identify with it and can’t remember. One of the reasons we unplugged from the “regular” life was because we don’t like the way our culture defines and undermines the family unit. It’s “normal” for parents to be running busily on separate hamster wheels, growing apart until they can no longer stay married, then spinning off as singles, or re-pairing to repeat the cycle. Kids are often collateral damage, dropped off for most of their childhoods at overcrowded day-care centers, government schools, friends’ houses, and sports practice where they’re forced to find their own way while their parents try to earn a living and pick up the pieces. I pass no judgment—forging a healthy family in our time and place is near-impossible and it requires a superhuman (or even supernatural) effort to change the familial patterns established from childhood.
I do not discount the ability of love to overcome these challenges, and the desire of all parents everywhere to do what’s best for their children, but merely propose that the norm is dysfunction. Jay and I are incredibly grateful to our parents, who, despite their own difficult childhoods, raised us to the best of their abilities, helping to give us the confidence and discipline we needed to pursue the lifestyle we’ve chosen. Even so, our childhoods were relatively “normal” and we went to public schools and followed the proscribed path until we found ourselves in the suburbs living “the American Dream” (complete with its hamster wheels) and wondered, “Is this it?”
One of the books that inspired us to leave our normal life and try something new was Tom Neale’s All In the Same Boat, in which he states some of the reasons he took his family cruising on a sailboat:
We do it because it’s fun. We do it because it’s beautiful. We do it because we love nature and the sea and the winds and the sky. We do it because it allows us to raise a family the way a family should be raised—and to know our children. We do it because it gives us more control over the way our family lives and survives, over the education and nurturing of our children, over the air we breathe. It gives us more control over our lives…
We didn’t even know what that meant when we started out. Seven years later, we are still figuring it out. What we know is this: despite some bad habits we carried with us from previous generations, we have a functional family. It is, by no means, a well-oiled machine, but it does function. When there is a problem or a conflict, and there are many, we don’t drown it in alcohol, we don’t run away from it, we don’t fight loudly about it, and we don’t ignore it or try to hide it. We have “family meetings” and when bad things happen, we pull together. Jay and I do marriage maintenance, and we try to spend individual time with each of the kids. By God’s grace, we do the hard work of loving each other in a small space. And it is hard work—there are fights, hurt feelings, harsh words, a constant need for conflict resolution skills and forgiveness. But there are also fun times: excellent dinner discussions over good food, games, music, and laughter. Sometimes I feel like we are failing to love each other adequately, but when I take a step back and look at the big picture or someone gives me an outsider’s perspective, I recognize that even in our struggles, we are a functional family, and that is one of the best gifts of a cruising lifestyle.