We are family…

My brief when I once wrote for someone else’s blog, was to conjure up something on family, so here is an updated/amended version…..and I’ll start off with the now getting on a bit (aren’t we all?) Motherhood Rap, just because I like its humorous realism…

I asked around for a few definitions/thoughts of what family means to people. Most people cannot quite explain but provide quotes, soundbites. Maybe that is telling us something.  They were all very different soundbites but all very appropriate in their own way, so let’s deal with them as they come. I’ve chosen three.

“Americans should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons!” – George Bush

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I’m no expert on Americans but we do have this rather candy-sweet idea about families, a false notion that families are all sweetness and light; thus, we are doomed to failure in expecting family life to deliver. I used to love the Waltons, all that large family fraternity and kindness, everyone helping each other, all very polite, sweet as apple pie, having their own individual ambitions, like John Boy scribbling away in his diary to become a journalist. They all put their pyjamas on and wished each other good night. It was sweet, loving, lovely.

As one of two children, I clamoured for lots of siblings and especially wanted sisters. I felt quite hard done by merely having an older brother. Now I haven’t even got him! Maybe this is why I had five children of my own, except in my case, it was nothing like the Waltons: rather a never-ending round of laundry and cooking, taxi-driving and money-lending, fearsome tiredness, and a constant melee of argument and noise; it felt rather like being invaded by aliens who play Call of Duty. That said, this astonishing array of personalities who somehow all emanated from the same gene pool, are also there for each other when the chips are down and have all grown to be fine adults (well, one is nearly there).

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Yes, we’re more like the Simpsons, though I’m not sure I’d quite call us dysfunctional.

That said, with the oldest at  28 and the youngest at 17, the thoughts that they would all provide company for each other and share interests were quickly laid to rest. Clothes were rarely handed down as they all developed different tastes and body shapes/sizes. And while one went for non-stop horse riding, the others did ballet, or football or drumming or guitar – and then moved on to the next thing, as my hard-earned bank balance depleted by the day. They all had different friends, most of whom seemed to ‘live’ at our house at some stage or other, and they all liked different foods. They made me financially much poorer, though as people always tell me – “you are sooooo lucky, you are blessed”  emotionally richer. 

In my bid to cater for different personalities and preferences, while still working and remaining that dream character ‘my own person,’ I spent most evenings in a daze when they were young. R & R to me was locking the bathroom door with a hot tap and a book – and sometimes a glass of wine – though even then they’d hammer on it asking me things – and still do. Or they’d shove notes under the door! Early mornings became my bastion of solitude, my precious ‘me time’. And still are. At least when they are young they go to bed at a reasonable hour, but as they grew older ones stayed up later and the younger one got up earlier…..stuffed at both ends!

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ” –  opening line of Anna Karenina

The families one always finds interesting, or the ones people talk about, the ones who are seemingly unhappy. This rather fits in with the Waltons. We all have this idea of the sanctity of family life, so watch in appalled horror when some level of conflict or unhappiness unfolds. We are raised, after all, to marry and have children, and to assume that this is what we should all aspire to – and indeed enjoy. Some people hide the conflict really well; for example, they practise passive-aggressive indifference instead.

Reality is, of course, that it doesn’t always work, that long-term fidelity, children, financial struggle and competing demands, even civil conversation, are a strain on most people. So, happy families are alike in the sense that they have developed workable strategies to deal with the rubbish times (and there are plenty of them for most of us if we’re honest).Unhappy families are basically the ones who can’t manage that at a certain period of time.

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Happiness is quite dull and boring, really, especially other people’s. We all want some excitement and only have to look at newspapers to realise that the world thrives on a drama, preferably someone else’s so we can sit smugly in the fact that it hasn’t happened to us, and pontificate on how we would have handled it differently. There but the grace of, say I….

“Family … the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children” – Strindberg

Goodness, well this one is quite strong, isn’t it? As a teenager, I rather liked Strindberg’s idea that life on earth was hell and that we must suffer to achieve ‘salvation’. Well, I was less keen on the second half, but my thinking was that humanity was doomed to an eternal frustration of dissatisfaction. Everywhere I looked, people seemed, while not exactly miserable, discontented. Always striving for what they couldn’t have, whether it was materialistic yearnings or something else. They bought more, they grew less contented.

Not sure I even know what this quote means but I do know that Stringberg was fairly anti-family. Certainly, there is much that is uncomfortable about family life. For example, as a feminist, I have many qualms about the sexist division of labour I seem to easily fall into, as do the rest of us. The wearing of a ring, the ‘giving away’ of a bride, the name change, and the general unceasing demands of it all tend to make me feel queasy.

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Strindberg seems a bit harsh on us women because I reckon family life is hardest for us; we get the rubbish jobs like constant housework. These days, we are not ‘charitably’ kept in comfort to raise children (well, maybe some are, I wasn’t) but we are raising children whilst being simultaneously out in the workplace, bringing home the bacon, jointly, or in many cases, on our own, because the one-parent family is the fastest growing.

Are house-fathers men who are tied to the home/role of father against their will? I don’t know but I carried out a piece of small-scale research for one of my Master’s degrees many years ago which demonstrated that professional men wanted more input into childcare though were less keen on the housework, and the women wanted the same. So, lots of playing and quality time with their children required by both sexes, but no one to clean the loo. You can see the beginnings of dissatisfaction creeping in……because ultimately someone has to clean that toilet!

Children were perceived as a reward for marriage or long-term commitment, housework was a punishment.

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Bad Parenting?

Problem is, we all have this media-led idea that our homes should look like a magazine spread, that untidiness, grime and mess is a sign of bad parenting. It isn’t, and men (sexism alert) generally don’t notice. It is largely a woman thing…..and we get brassed off about it. We have to remember we do not live in ‘House Beautiful’ but actually, we get dirty and messy, sweaty and bloody. That’s the reality. And it’s good, shows we’re alive, not disinfected.

Hell for children? I don’t know but I have been alarmed by the numbers of young teenage women I meet who are on anti-depressants, self-harming, anorexic and involved in other self-damaging behaviours. Also, the numbers of young males who seem to have no function, aspiration, motivation or role. We can’t blame the family for everything but significant others must play a part, along with other social structures like unemployment and media.

My husband tells me that marriage is economically the most efficient way to raise children. One home is cheaper than two and the work can be shared to some extent. I guess if we view the family as an economic institution, then that makes sense, though what happens when the children have grown and flown? Oh yes, we get the ageing parents to look after and pay for…and start all over again!

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