The Family Life Cycle: Gear Shifts and Spirals, with Dr. Geri Fox

The Family Life Cycle: Gear Shifts and Spirals, with Dr. Geri Fox

Last month, CCAF faculty, residents and fellows were treated to a wonderful lecture by family psychiatrist Dr. Geri Fox.   “Gear Shifts and Spirals”  was an interactive discussion of video taken by Dr. Fox of her own family filmed over 25 years.  

Dr. Fox began her filming long before the now ubiquitous culture of self documentation.  She is a pioneer ethnographer, recording the turning points and challenges of everyday family life through the lens of her video camera.

She dedicated her talk to Dr. Lee Combrick-Graham, colleague and mentor who encouraged and nurtured this project.  

The images of gears and spirals were apt descriptions of the family life cycle.  Three dimensional, always in motion, the family is envisioned as  a system moving through time.  Dr. Fox described gear shifts as the ‘biobehavioral’ changes that are biologically driven – such as puberty.  These are times when the family’s world gets reordered, priorities shift, and boundaries diffuse.

As we know,  those changes, though anticipated,  can feel as sudden as accidentally shifting the car into reverse.

iStock_000023141413_MediumThe spiral conveys an image of coming together and then moving out again over time.   These forces are ever present in the family life cycle: the centripetal force that draws family together for the birth of a child, or a marriage; the centrifugal force that propels outward as children are launched into college and their young adult years.


It’s one thing to describe a case of normal sibling rivalry, but quite another to watch Dr. Fox’s daughter poke and prod her newborn baby brother as residents and faculty laughed in recognition of this utterly familiar family scene.  We follow her along with husband and children through the small daily life events that, taken together, tell the story of family development over time: bemoaning the adolescent who’s ‘never home anymore,’  a daughter uttering fears about those first days at college.  Perhaps it’s the combination of voice and image that combine to keep the audience rapt; the empty place at the table, the boxes stacked by the door, so powerful in their familiarity, and so expressive of the experience of family.

Dr. Fox’s Life-Span Development Video Curriculum is utilized by the majority of US medical schools as well as abroad. She has won multiple awards for film-making, including two INTERCOM Chicago International Film Festival Certificates of Merit: in 2010, for Normal Development Video Series: A Longitudinal Stimulus Video Curricular Resource for Educators; and in 2013, for Saying Goodbye: A Personal Documentary about Attachment and Loss at End-of-Life.

Geri Fox, MD, MHPE is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. She currently serves as the Assistant Dean for Graduate Medical Education, as well as the Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry.

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