The role of nostalgia in forging family life

I’ve just had something of a light-bulb moment after reading this report in The Observer ‘Look back in joy: the power of nostalgia’ exploring ongoing research into the role of nostalgia. When researching late Georgian parenting, one of the things that I kept on encountering were people’s memories of their parents and childhood. These recollections were powerful and seemed to fit into the mode of nostalgia and longing. I wrote an article on this (‘The “Afterlife” of Parenting’ here) which began life as a paper at a conference on nostalgia, but eventually moved away from the concept of nostalgia to the role of memory about parents in creating personal identity.

Similarly, I noticed that parents understood their role as one of transmitting values to the next generation. I wrote a chapter in my book Parenting in England on this, titled ’Transferring Family Values’. I identified several values including piety, virtuousness, industriousness, filial duty, and the rather more nebulous one of domesticity. The latter caused me some concern as it was clearly valuable for parents and children, but I was not entirely sure that I was labelling it correctly.

parenting book cover

I describe domesticity in this sense as : ‘a mind-set that was nurtured as a family identity’. I noted that:

it was separation from spouse, children or parents, or its threat through removal, emigration or death that brought the vocabulary of domesticity into use’.

I argue that ‘the purpose of this language of ‘domesticity’ at the turn of the century seems to have functioned in similar ways to sensibility in the second half of the eighteenth century, as a concept that sustained a notion of family, representing safety and security in changing world’.

Having read the Observer’s overview of the nostalgia research by Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton, I now see that my initial impression was correct: nostalgia was the glue in family life. Why did I lose confidence and not pursue this as the key framework for thinking about this aspect of parenting?

I moved away from the concept primarily because it seemed to be discussed in modern accounts as a negative feeling and perhaps even divisive one.

As the Observer states, for too long nostalgia has been seen as a ‘psychological disorder’. Yet I felt that the nostalgic reminiscence in my sources was benign.

For instance I comment in my book:

The use of place and memory to fix the child in the emotional nexus of the family was striking. Ruth Courtauld did just this in 1813 when she told George junior, away at school,
“I sat a long time in your Summer house today and thought of you – not uncomfortably tho’ it will be a long time until I see you, but with pleasure, for I hope you are improving more than if you were here, and I know not any gratification I would not give up for your good – Anna Taylor, Catherine and Eliza often sit there and work and read, they have got a nice bench there, they all desire their Love [meaning they all sent their love to him]” .

I was struck, therefore, by Wildschut and Sedikides’ more positive image of nostalgia. Their research shows that it is a benign force and activity that soothes people who are encountering transitions in life. Wildschut says:

“Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present. What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”

The report goes on to discuss whether parents have a role in forging positive nostalgic memories for their children, as a resource for them to use in difficult times. This is exactly what I see in the accounts of parenting in the Georgian period. When parents and children exchanged letters remembering events and feelings – such a frequent activity – they were forging restorative links that would help individuals through life’s changes.

This was also about binding families together. I see that my attempt to use domesticity as a value transmitted across generations might actually be something more akin to nostalgia, though using a contemporary term. So Sedikides says:

The ability and encouragement to access nostalgia also builds gratitude and connectedness towards others,”… “It tends to make children less selfish.

And I think this is just what elite parents were trying to inculcate in their offspring in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I conclude my chapter on transmitting values across generations:

Prized traits were circulated between parents and children as ways to achieve familial and individual benefits. They encompassed formal religious and pedagogical modes and moral didacticism. Yet they also worked at the level of the imaginary, drawing upon emotional languages to define the collective family, aspire to its cohesion, and to aid its members to draw strength from that illusory security to branch out into independence.

The emotional language, it seems to me, often included nostalgia. So, thanks to my Facebook friends (Elaine Chalus and Helen Rogers) who shared this report on new ways of thinking about nostalgia, I can return to my instinct that nostalgia was critical in family life. Perhaps I should trust my instincts a bit more in future – even if it requires digging deeper into those research areas that are unfamiliar.

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