Contemporary Challenges to Family Unity

Absence often manifests the importance of presence. I think of my one year old son Raphael. When my wife is not at home, he looks at me and utters a plaintive interrogative, “Mama?” “Mama will be home soon,” I respond, hoping the tone and feeling behind my words will convey a comfort their meaning cannot. For Raphael my wife’s return is an occasion of great joy, and for me of great relief. At times I have wondered what I would say to Raphael if for some reason she actually did not come home.

I will never forget the time I tried to explain the reality of heaven to my young son Nicholas. “You will be with God forever and ever.” That didn’t have much purchase with him. Undaunted, I proceeded, “You will be with all the saints and angels, and all your desires will be fulfilled.” This too did not have much effect. Now Nicholas was at the age where what a child says is pure: no posturing, just straight from the heart. “Gosh,” he said. “All I know is: if you and Mama are there, I’ll be happy.”

I had set out to teach him something. But his words changed my understanding of family life. Even if not theologically precise, his response captures a fundamental truth. Human life is all about presence. Real, personal, presence. And the fundamental place of presence is the home. At the end of the day what else is a home but the place where we can live in the presence of those to whom we are closest?

The need for presence is unmistakable in young children. Barring obvious exceptions such as abusive parents, young children are happy when they are together with their parents. They simply want to be together with the people they love. This striking truth should give us pause for reflection. Is this desire a function of immaturity, or is it rather the fruit of a vision unclouded by the hurts and travails of growing up?

Isolation—the lack of presence—is unhappiness. No wonder so many of us, and of our children, are unhappy. Our homes, which should be great oases, bastions of presence, have become halls of absence.

Who is at home? It seems most of the things that we’re doing we do somewhere else: work, exercise, play … even eat. So much of the time we’re not bodily present. Normally at least we sleep at home.

And when our bodies are there, how truly present are we? Whatever the utility of the many technologies we now have, the fact is they tend to separate our attention from where our body is. I always found the reaction of our young children to my being on the telephone curious. As soon as I picked up the phone—this is when the only phone I had was attached to a wall—two year old Magdalena seemed to need me right away. She just had to show me that tower of blocks, or needed her shoe tied now. My phone conversations were punctuated by the sounds of someone pulling at my pant legs. I have come to realize this was not a coincidence. My daughter perceived that I was no longer really present to her, though my body was. That didn’t seem right to her, so she set about making it right the best she could.

More recent technologies have only amplified the problem. In a recent radio ad a high speed internet provider proudly announced: “Now everyone in the house can be on their own device at the same time.” Hmm. I suppose it’s a problem if only one or two people can be technologically absent. Improved internet access will prevent other family members from being home alone; now everyone can be somewhere else at the same time.

The question is: when and where will they be somewhere together?

Household meals in common, perhaps the most obvious and consistent context for being-together, have been on the decline for years. And rather than reading aloud, singing, or story-telling, much “free time” is spent in activities in which the rest of the family does not participate, or for which they have little understanding or interest.

Absence manifests the importance of presence. But what really teaches the importance of presence is the actual experience of it. A child especially feels the absence of her parents if her parents are usually there, present in body and attention. How we live—or don’t live—in our homes forms our children, and ourselves, for either a life of presence, or of absence. Isolation numbs. Inasmuch as we and our children are deprived of rich, consistent face to face interaction with loved ones in the home, we are all learning to live in isolation. It is a lesson not readily unlearned.

John A. Cuddeback


John A. Cuddeback is Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. His book Friendship: The Art of Happiness was republished in 2010 as True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. His writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, and The Thomist, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. He lives with his wife Sofia and their six children in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah. He blogs at

  • JERD

    Very well said.

    To be “present” involves the senses. The more our senses make us attune to another person, the more “present” we are to the other, and they to us. Presence is a necessary ingredient of any loving relationship.

    Of course, the most profound example of the love that flows from presence is the Real Presence. Our Lord knows the human desire and need to be in His presence as a prerequisite to our exchange of love with Him and with each other in communion.

    There is no greater gift than to be in the presence of one who loves and is loved.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Wonderful article Dr. Cuddeback! Thank you.

    We notice at restaurants, quiet often now, a parent or two are at the table with a child or two and focused solely on the phone texting or an ipod or whatever they have these days and the kid usually looks on the verge of catatonic. Utter silence at the table accompanies the lack of presence and gives detail to the sad picture of being lonely in a crowd.

  • EireItalia

    A timely and incredibly important reminder for all of us raising young children in this modern age — thank you!

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Such a simple but profound truth about the first principles of love–to be really present in body and mind, to be always available and near loved ones, to be absent as little as possible from the family. In this simple way we come to know the heart and soul of the beloved in our lives who reveal and open themselves because are there, interested, listening, and responsive. Only in these ways can children and parents, husbands and wives, and man and God continue to grow in the riches of love. A heartwarming and penetrating essay!

  • John A. Cuddeback

    Mitchell, EireItalia, Steven, and Jerd,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging reflections.
    Now for the hard part: determining a practical course of action in our homes…

  • Arthur

    Thank you for the article, Dr. Cuddeback! I’m sure this has applications to the wider sense of family too, i.e., community living.

    • John Cuddeback

      Arthur — I couldn’t agree more. Personal presence is central to any true community. We need to find, cultivate, and protect social contexts for being-with-one-another, such as in parishes, neighborhoods, etc.

  • Johanna Rubin

    ironic that this clear message is being conveyed by the means it criticizes… but the point is well made …

    • John A. Cuddeback

      It is ironic. Your good point brings into relief the difficulty before us. These media, with all the challenges intrinsically associated with them, are an everyday part of our lives. It seems to me that the notion of presence to persons is an important way to think about how properly to order our use of technology–especially in the home. Our homes will take a special care to preserve them as places of presence. We must be continuously reflecting and deliberating, and praying, about how best to hand these matters.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Johanna Rubin

        Yes, that is it! It is a moment to moment thing, etiquette and consideration of others, can be modeled and taught.

  • 1rosemarie2

    We have a pro-life site in Arabic … could this article be partly translated and reproduced for our site ?
    Thanks for your answer …

    • Crisiseditor

      Email your reprint request to the editor (me) along with a link to your site using the “contact” email on the Crisis site. I will respond via email. Reprint requests must be addressed to the editor.

  • Ralph Canine

    Good work, Dr. Cuddeback! When your kids are a bit older, they’re be able to absorb the idea of God the Father and Mary, Mother of God because their own family is loving and unified. When I was teaching CCD, it came out in class discussion, with depressing regularity, that the kids from divorced homes were alienated, if not scornful, of the whole idea of God the Father. Their own father was absent, distant, unreliable, and had in many cases founded a second family with a new wife. The kids from the original family were desperately jealous of their half-siblings. The single moms who sent their kids to CCD is most cases didn’t attend Mass themselves, but were making a desperation move to help their kids get some kind of moral and spiritual grounding. No wonder we have a therapists office on every corner! Our CCD curriculum and teacher training made no mention whatsoever of these realities, so CCD teachers had to cope with them ad hoc. This needs to change — a great opportunity for the New Evangelization. The kids from divorced homes want something better and would be open to a message of hope.

    • John Cuddeback

      Ralph– Amen to the great need for strong fatherhood. God grant to us fathers the grace to bring His loving presence to our homes, especially through the exercise of a loving authority. Indeed, the renewal of fatherhood must be at the heart of the New Evangelization, which starts in our own homes.

    • beriggs

      I’m reading this long after you posted, but perhaps you may still see it. As an RCIA catechist, I address this issue often. My suggestion to catechumens is to ask them how they know their fathers are “bad fathers.” If there is no “perfect fatherhood,” they would have no point of reference for how their own fathers fail to live up to this ideal. I try to lead them to see God as the perfect Father against which fatherhood is measured, and to accept and embrace the perfection which has been denied them by their human fathers. I speak from painful experience, as my own father was sadly deficient. I also share that my earthly father experienced a profound conversion in later life and the healing that was possible occurred and therefore bring in the idea of the hope of salvation for all of us, and the miracles that take place in the years of a life.

      • John Cuddeback

        beriggs– I think you have a great point here.

  • KC

    Today I had to stop and pause, realizing that a long list of “things to do” were keeping me from being present to my children too! I had to decide that the laundry could be done later, and the house really didn’t need to be vacuumed, and go read a book with them. It’s a good thing to be reminded of – just because we’re there doesn’t mean we’re present.

    • John Cuddeback

      KC– Thank you very much for sharing this great example. Often I have made the mistake of putting something such as cleanliness before the more fundamental goods of the home.

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  • Megan Fraser

    Great article – very thought provoking.

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