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It is the conceit of every generation that their own childhood took place during the end of an era. I’m guessing that this more accurately reflects the rose-tinted spectacles view of our childhood that many of us have. In truth there are so many changes happening all the time—the motor car, world wars, television, computers, the internet, sliced bread—that it is easy for our internal pundit to draw the conclusion that, say, the invention of the toaster really did signify the end of one era and the start of another. I need then to be especially careful when I propose that Things Have Changed with respect to the family. I think I have a basis though.
When I was aged ten and in junior school I was fairly sure—in the way that small boys can be sure about these things—that I was the only one in my class with divorced parents. This is not to imply a school in a particularly affluent or advantaged area, but instead an average school with ordinary children, and, I thought, ordinary parents.
Aged 14 in senior school my individual status had altered, although those of us from “broken homes” were still in a minority. The phrase puzzled me though, even then. I could see what was broken about my family, but not about my homes (now plural) where I was loved and nourished and supported. The dangerous idea crept into my mind that maybe I was from a more advantaged place than those folk I knew whose families weren’t yet overtly broken, but their homes probably were; their homes did not support them in the way mine did.
Later, 20 years old and at university, I met someone who told me that she’d not known anyone at her school with divorced parents. By this point, even my minority status was under threat, and I found her statement so unusual that I felt it said more about her background than mine.
These days I’m surprised when taking a history if the family tree is a straightforward nuclear family. I find myself with very mixed feelings if I pause to examine this surprise. More and more our concept of “normality” is tested. Should the word mean the same as average, or more accurately median? Or should it mean, in this context, acceptable? How about desirable? When I say that I would prefer children to be brought up in a normal environment, what am I actually asking for and, additionally, what am I implying about what I regard as my own excellent—but, by many definitions abnormal—upbringing?
More and more our concept of “normality” is tested.
Australian law has recently increased the legal strength implicit in a de facto or common law relationship. For example, my wife and I confer upon each other, by legal strength of our marriage, the same rights on each other as a couple who have been in a de facto relationship for, depending on the circumstances, six months to two years. Put another way, after two years it is as if you are married. Yet another way: you might as well be married. Some might say that this just another piece of evidence pointing to the progressive trivialisation of marriage as an institution. Others might point out that, for many, the institution has been brought so low that it represents merely a brief prolongation of a one night stand, so it can hardly be made more trivial.
The truth, as it usually is, is probably much more complex. What has been getting clearer to me ever since the seed was sown by folk talking their “broken home” nonsense is that family is a much more fluid and difficult concept than I’ll ever fully grasp. At the same time that there are wonderful conventional families out there, (Shirley Temple orphan’s dream families where everyone is happy, even the dog) there are also some wonderful unconventional families too. We can all bring to mind the apparently broken family which we loaded with burdens—usually medical—in the certain knowledge that they would not cope, “not under their circumstances”. But cope they did, probably better than we would have.
The converse is that some families fail, and fail badly. And we all know other families which are apparently “nuclear”, but on closer examination are so toxic that that they only really earn the nuclear description by comparison with the spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant.
I’m sure that most of us have been intuitively shifting our concept of family for years. I’m not courageous or clever enough to suggest how we should define what a family really is. I would say, however that it is far too important an issue (and too much of the end of an era) to leave to politicians, the media, or even religious leaders the task of defining what a “proper, normal” family should be.