Reclaiming the Shelter of Each Other

by Shelby Murphy

For all our progress in science and technology in the last century, we've experienced proportionate regress in another area -- the family dynamic. I have always been a proponent of technology. I'm very grateful I live in a time of vaccines, computers, cars, the Internet, airplanes, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and extended life expectancies.

But when we left behind the agony and heartbreak of the 19th century family homestead, we left behind the closeness and camaraderie of the family as well. Today we strike out as individuals, struggling to find our place in the ever-expanding world. Families, it seems, are only peripherally useful. Back then, survival depended on the unit, and everybody within the family knew their value to the group from the get-go.

The PBS miniseries, Frontier House, illustrated this well. The program brought together three modern families and, in essence, sent them back in time to 1883 Montana. The three families were given only the period-appropriate supplies they could carry in a small horse-drawn wagon and, in full 19th century fashion, were sent to homestead acreage in a Rocky Mountain valley for five months.

As the families endured the unexpected hardships of grueling dawn-to-dusk labor, severe food rationing and weight loss, and the unpredictability of Mother Nature, they also found a sense of purpose and alliance within their homes.

Just two weeks into project, Aine Clune, a 15-year-old whose affluent family normally resides in Malibu, California, commented on how useful she felt as she planted seeds in the family garden. Knowing that her parents and siblings would rely on the fruits of her labor as their food source in months to come, Aine described how in the 21st century she would be watching TV while here she knew that she mattered.

Mary Pipher, Ph.D., in her book The Shelter of Each Other, explained how generations past found intimacy and purpose within their families because they presented a united front against the external enemies of disease, drought, blizzards, and hunger. Their families were built upon a shared reliance and mutual respect that stems from facing hardships together.

Today, argues Pipher, the enemies are more subtle. Lack of time for each other, media influence, crime, and isolation are just some of the modern enemies that today's family battles. But these enemies don't face a household united. Instead, each member of the 21st century family fights the war alone.

Pipher says that despite our prosperity, our culture has grown to undermine families rather than support them. That in spite of all of our progress, we are "thirsty in the rain."

So what's the solution? Most of us aren't willing to move to Montana, surrendering our Starbucks and cell phones, microwaves and minivans, tampons and toilet paper, yet we crave the kind of intimacy and purpose that such a radical departure would foster. How can we create, then, the familial bonds forged by the hardship of the frontier and still live in the health, safety, and convenience of the modern day?

Pipher makes some common sense suggestions that families implemented by necessity 100 years ago but take a well educated expert to point out to us today.

The most obvious solution is time. Even if the three families on Frontier House would have spent five months together at a luxury resort in Aruba instead of the outback of Montana, they still would have each emerged a more solid unit. We work harder and harder to provide more and more for our kids when all they really need is us.

In Pipher's book, one mother sums it up nicely. "We're missing the seasons, the sunsets and the stars. We're slicing our time thinner and thinner until by now it's transparent. Our schedules don't protect us. They are stealing our lives."

Next, Pipher questions our increasing appetite for more space. Is a 3,500 square-foot home where mom fixing dinner in the kitchen is nearly a mile away from kids watching cartoons in the home theatre really better than a two-room cabin? Pipher recalls her son's comments when her family moved from a small house to a larger one. "I liked our small house more," he said. "I could hear Dad and you talking when I was falling asleep. When you were in the kitchen I could ask you about my homework. In this new house, we are so far apart."

Last, even though we worry more about sex and violence on TV than locusts and blizzards, we must make our homes impermeable to outside threats just the same. Be weary, says Pipher, of the invisible influences of commercialism and a crass culture that find their way to our children daily.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life…” –Henry David Thoreau
About the Author:
Shelby Murphy is a freelance writer, columnist, and mother of two. Her work has been published nationally and circulates the globe online. In 2001, she started RadiantWomen, an online and syndicated print column for women who live life on purpose. For a free subscription or more information, contact Shelby at or