I don't remember my parents ever going out on dates, per se, when I was growing up. I do remember they spent a lot of time together, and with me and my sister. Even now in my late 40's, one of their greatest joys is when I visit, or when I take my children and we all gather at their home. As a matter of fact, we're in the process of moving houses so we can live within walking distance of my parents.
I'm an Iraqi immigrant; our marriage/family culture is so different from American marriage and family life that my family went through a dramatic culture shock when we came to America in the late 1970s. I was convinced that to be a well-assimilated and integrated American woman, I had to reject everything about my Iraqi-Christian culture. I've said before that I found assimilation to be more of a revolution than an adaptation. In some sense, I had to “revolt” against who I was before in order to enter into a new social order. It took me many years to understand and to practice well the art of bringing two cultures together within myself—and eventually in my family life.
In a recent article here at the Institute for Family Studies, Alysse ElHage compared the shared time of parents in the U.S. with parents in Spain and France. It was not surprising to me that parents in France and Spain spent more time per day with their partners than their U.S. counterparts. The study also found that the way parents spend time together is not strictly bound by work hours. Rather, it had more to do with the parenting norms of the studied cultures. This makes sense. Even after we came to America and our life became different—my parents worked longer hours per day and we had no extended family to care for us children—overall, we still spent more time together as a family than most American families. If there was one exception it would be those families who had a stay-at-home mom.
For a long time, I've tried to decipher the key differences between American family culture and my Iraqi-Christian sub-culture and the Arab culture in general. Although this is anecdotal because I don't have specific data on it, overall, I would say American parents do a better job at playing with their children and attending to a child's individual needs. That makes sense given the individual orientation and the liberal democratic principles of this culture. Liberal democratic principles (equality of personhood, respect for individual human rights, religious freedom, equal treatment before the law, non-violent civil disobedience, political and economic space for growth, etc.), coupled with a tempered individualism have the potential of producing a space for human flourishing. In harmony, these qualities can help parents see their children as their own persons with a soul which must be nurtured into good, mature, responsible members of society. But when these good cultural qualities become disordered and out of equilibrium, they can create a cultural atmosphere that acts against the well-being of the family.
In contrast, the Iraqi culture—indeed the whole of the Middle Eastern culture—tends to downplay the individual for the sake of the entire family, household, and clan. One of the first lessons I learned is “life isn't just about you,” but “you are connected to others and what you do affects many around you.” This rule applied to significant life decisions, such as which career path to choose or who to marry, all the way down to seemingly trivial practices like not eating the last apple in the refrigerator until everyone in the house has been asked if they want it first. As an aside, this was the area that caused me the greatest agitation and difficulty after I came to America, where I was surrounded by a different message: “think of yourself and your desires first.”
This constant consideration of others was most evident in the very generous and hospitable Arabic culture. Growing up, our weekends were full of gatherings—someone was always coming to our home or we would go visit other families—even though we lived 30 miles or more from most Arabic people. This cultural quality was manifested in multi-family picnics and camping trips; day trips to local lakes; formal Arabic parties with Middle Eastern entertainers; a variety of feast days and celebrations. Eventually, a critical mass of Arabs began to form closer to our home. Once the distance gap closed, the frequency of these hospitable practices increased: weekday gatherings over meze and a drink, or evening tea-time (a custom Arabs adopted from the British) became almost a daily occurrence. We lived in community to the fullest extent possible, so much so, that I used to quarrel with my mother over it. I was becoming more individualistic, fiercely jealous of my "me-time." My mother on the other hand—so given to hospitality—was forever saying “yes” to people dropping by for chi or qahwi (tea and Arabic coffee).
It's not that Arab people don't have hardships such as depression, marital problems, rebellious children, and so on. They do, but their response to these difficulties is more often eased by hospitality rather than Zoloft.
The hospitable quality of our culture plays an important role in the mental and physical health of individuals and families. It's not that Arab people don't have hardships such as depression, marital problems, rebellious children, and so on. They do, but their response to these difficulties is more often eased by hospitality rather than Zoloft. The social aspect of the hospitable act helps tremendously; loneliness is constantly alleviated. The men will interact with one another, discussing and arguing, while the women will gather, giving each other advice and support. These acts help to distract from the temptation of constant introspection.
If your idea of hospitality is restricted to a formal or semi-formal dinner party with no children within earshot, allow me to disabuse you of that thought. By hospitality, I mean a particular expression of love, an openness to other people, and a generosity of spirit. At the heart of hospitality is an orientation toward the other.
Many times, when we experience marital or family problems in this contemporary culture, our first response is to turn in on ourselves and focus on our own needs and wants. In contrast, hospitality exercises the habit of coming out of ourselves; it forces us to turn toward others, to serve, to prefer others above ourselves, and to avoid the temptation to turn inward.
I witnessed the healing effects of hospitality in my parents’ marriage. It was more than just having a temporary distraction from marital problems. Many times, when a hospitable act by one or the other came in the midst of a marital rift, my parents came toward each other later with a fresh perspective, a calmness, renewed openness, and a more controlled self-will. I've even seen fighting couples come to a party in evident discord with one another, only to be nudged by friends and family into reconciliation. The tangible healing effect of hospitality in my Arabic culture is imprinted upon my soul.
At the heart of hospitality is an orientation toward the other.
Doing acts for one another—from cooking a meal to giving the gift of time or service—often forms habits of the heart. The habit of loving and serving others and each other through hospitality is built not only in husbands and wives, but also acts as an example to children. It, in turn, helps your orientation toward your own family.
Hospitality includes suffering, yet another quality we need to do well in family life. My parents practiced hospitality even when we were poor immigrants. Many times over the years, in response to my questions of why we made the best food when we had guests, my mom would answer that we offer our best to others, even if we must skimp on ourselves during the week. That is the idea of putting others before yourself; it disabuses us of the me-centeredness prevalent in our culture.
This practice of hospitality may be one reason why there is less divorce in the Middle Eastern culture. In his IFS piece, Most Immigrant Families Are Traditional Families, Nicholas Zill reports on a study comparing immigrant families with native-born families. More immigrant couples stayed together, even those living below or close to the poverty line. He reports that “75 percent of immigrant children live in married-couple families, compared to 61 percent of children of U.S.-born parents.” With few exceptions, I found this to be true in my own immigrant community.
There are wonderful things about America, including liberties beyond imaginings. But there is also much we can learn from other cultures, beginning with the immigrants that live among us. This includes my own Middle Eastern culture, which has much to teach us about hospitality. The practice of hospitality in our communities and our homes is another way to strengthen family life and our nation.