Going Nuclear

Last month, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hammered out a deal to cut nuclear stockpiles in their respective countries.

Around the same time, dictator Kim Jong Il fired seven missiles off the east coast of North Korea as a preliminary to future nuclear tests.

The world is expecting a nuclear-armed Iran with great trepidation.

The word “nuclear” conjures up horrific visions of mushroom clouds and radiation-poisoned victims. Isn’t it ironic, then, that we call our basic family unit a “nuclear family?”

Not really. The person who coined the term must have gone through the sheer terror that grips a new parent when the newborn is brought home from the hospital. No matter how many books you’ve read or how many websites you’ve checked out, at that moment, you feel woefully unprepared and terribly overwhelmed.

That first night, I was expecting my sleep to be interrupted, but no one warned me that I would spend most of that night, and many nights after that, creeping to the crib to see if the baby was breathing. I had already been warned of the many things that are likely to go wrong—meningitis, SIDS, allergies, autism; and the many things I could do wrong—too many vaccinations, too few vaccinations, too much stimulation, not enough brain food …  it is a miracle anybody voluntarily chooses the job.

In India, many of us are lucky to have large, extended, families close at hand, and the comfort of knowing that there will always be somebody who will swoop down to help us out, should we start panicking. There are aunts and grandmas, cousins and neighbors, ready to dispense advice and wisdom, and more than willing to take a colicky baby off our hands and let us have a few precious hours of sleep. Here in the United States, it  often just the new mom and her equally clueless spouse. How does this nuclear family avert a familial apocalypse?

Somehow, we create our own “family.” We reach out to friends for advice, nannies for help and, over transcontinental  video, grandmas and grandpas to cluck and coo over the newest family member and lovingly recall anecdotes from our own childhood.

We redefine what it means to be a family and resign ourselves to the fact that we have to work harder at it than our parents probably did. That’s the price we pay for the spirit of exploration and adventure that made us leave the comfort of our known world. With any luck, we’ve already passed on those courageous genes to the little bundle that holds us forever to the ransom of love, sacrifice, and sleepless nights.

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