‘Nuclear Families’ – commonly described as two married heterosexual human adults living with children – have been a common enough family structure in the United States for it to be called ‘the norm’ by some and ‘the ideal’ by others. And yet, the O’Briens are the only representation of this family structure in fifty years of Star Trek – and they’re kind of a wreck.
From their first episode as a couple – TNG’s “Data’s Day”, which follows Keiko and Miles’s wedding day through Data’s eyes – the future O’Briens are fighting, passing snips through their confused android friend. As we follow the family from the Enterprise to Deep Space Nine, we continue to watch them struggle. Some of these struggles are fantastic – there are transporter accidents and time prisons for family members to get stuck in – but many of their issues can hit close to home.
The O’Briens, like many families, struggle to balance their needs with their caregiving responsibilities and their relationships. Deep Space Nine begins with Miles taking a promotion on a far off space station, requiring Keiko to abandon her botany career, and creating an imbalance in the relationship. Eventually, Keiko resumes her career, but has to spend long periods of time away from Miles for work, creating emotional and physical distance. The O’Briens don’t know how to handle all this family friciton, so they do what they know how to do: fight.
The O’Briens’ fights are so plentiful that they are discussed among the other characters, with Quark once referring to the couple as the ‘Battling O’Briens”. We the viewers see so much of their fighting that we can study it with therapeutic diagnostic tools, as a brilliant woman on the Women at Warp blog did. (Please take a moment to look at it. There are charts, brilliant charts.)
There’s also little doubt that despite the frequent battles, Keiko and Miles love eachother, and are devoted to their family. I didn’t really ‘get’ the O’Briens until I watched the way they cared for their daughter after she was sucked into said time portal. Molly O’Brien went into the portal as a happy and engaged child, and emerged as a deeply traumatized young adult. Barely able to talk and afraid of everything, Molly has to be coaxed by her parents to do the most basic of tasks. I was impressed by the way the O’Briens seemed to ‘click’ into gear to help their daughter. When their child was at stake, they put their differences aside and began the task of re-connecting with Molly. My heart ached to see them both on the floor, trying to get their daughter to roll a ball back to them, but I also felt proud of their family.
The Takeaway: If you’re in a partnered caregiving situation and you find yourself fighting quite a bit, consider Keiko and Miles O’Brien. Fighting doesn’t mean you don’t love each other, it means that you don’t have the tools to deal with the situation. And just because the most of the characters of Star Trek didn’t have access to mental health help (Why?!? Why oh why do these poor people not have more help? Did Data accidentally delete all the relationship self-help books? Can 24th century marriage counselors not get past Earth’s atmosphere?) doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t reach out for help. Here on Earth, help is available for couples like Keiko and Miles – don’t be afraid to ask for it.