“Families come in all shapes and sizes” , a common saying and one which is largely true. However, as I watch adverts in the run up to Christmas (such as the one for frozen chips below) I realize that there is a problem; we are so keen to promote one thing that we lose sight of something else. Our recognition of what constitutes a family is being eroded and chipped away.
These adverts obviously celebrate the diversity which exists in our culture and we are happy to see such differences welcomed and minority groups presented in a positive light. However, the idea that “differences” are what make a family is clearly wrong. Family, if it means anything, means similarity and relationship. Families, as we are all aware, are not something we choose but a non-optional group into which we are born. We choose our friends, our colleagues, our partners but not our family.
Left and right political thought has been chipping away at the idea of the family for some time. The family is an awkward social unit for both sides of the debate.
On the right, the desire to maximise economic growth sees the family as an inefficient unit – much better to have two adults working than only one and the other staying in the family to rear and nurture children. Even better, if this childrearing and nurturing itself can become an industry and profit gleaned from the labour of others by providing childcare and rearing services. The right matches the approach of economic freedom (we are all free to make money as best we are able) with individual freedom (our relationships are only valuable in as far as they make us happy). Ideas that duty and responsibility could be superior to profit or happiness are an anathema to those of a neo-liberal or libertarian inclination. The right undermines the family by promoting greater material wealth and promising greater individual choice.
On the left, the family is seen as a reactionary unit and a bulwark against the influence of the state. Families protect and support themselves, a task increasingly seen as a job for the welfare state. Even worse families educate and instruct their children; in the state’s eyes this tends to be seen as indoctrination, and that is better done by them. The left’s understandable desire to tackle such problems as gender inequality or religious intolerance lead it to see the family as largely in negative terms; something from which we need to escape!
These views ignore that facts that for most of us the family has been our greatest support and protection. During our evolution the family group has allowed us to avoid the limitations of our weak and limited bodies and provide a structure which keeps our infants and children safe and provided for at their most vulnerable time. Families also unshackled us from our genes; by being able to teach our children and pass on the wisdom that adults had gathered we were no limited to a knowledge set that was hard-wired in at birth.
This doesn’t mean that we have to look at families askance if they don’t have the traditional make-up of mum, dad and kids; but it does suggest that we should promote the basic idea of the family. That is, of a group comprising parents and children bound together in a permanent, mutually loving bond. This unit is formed by the decision to have and rear children and to take care of each other. It is not formed simply by desires; you may love who you will, but simply loving someone does not make them family – family is a much deeper commitment. Fortunately our nature helps us here, we have literally evolved so that we have innate love for our children and family we don’t have to work that hard at it – usually.
Permanence is key here, the contract is such that it takes major steps (and usually death) to leave the unit. To all intents and purposes, once you are a member of a family, that is it, for good. No matter how much you may wish it you can never stop being a son or a brother or a mother. These roles are non-optional. Even though we may stop being husband or wife we do not stop being mum or dad. It is because marriage is the traditional first step in family formation that it is an interpersonal contract very different to all the others we may make. Now that we have decoupled sex and reproduction we need to give more thought to this area. There is still a need for a special contract, essentially permanent, which we need when we intend to create a family but do not require when we simply seek mutual pleasure and happiness with another person.
With our current progression we may manage to replace the family with material abundance and a benevolent welfare state. We may hope in doing so we also find greater happiness as we have greater individual freedom and more choice. However, it is not how much choice we have that matters most but whether we are able to make good choices. For ourselves, for our race and for our planet it is probable that our best choice would be to eschew the desire for more and better, and aim to find our pleasure in small groups, adequacy and fairness, mutual respect and toleration or, put more simply, in family life.
In times of crisis, our instincts are to try and return to our families. In essence this is what families are. They are the place we feel safe, where we are tolerated whatever our differences, and where we can be forgiven whatever has befallen us. They are the place we will be cared for regardless of our wealth or ability. They are our refuge when the whole world seems to be rising up against us. A family is not simply eating chips together, nor is it a place where we eat together with a familiar group, that is a usually termed a canteen. We may manage to replace the family, but if we do, we should prepare to spend our emotional lives in works or community canteens eating chips. We may be adequately fed but this may be much less satisfying than we hoped for.