The Saturday Essay: The nuclear family is dead. Long live the family

The "maypole family" is long and thin, with any number of strands winding around it; a powerful, supportive structure

ONCE UPON a time, the family was a lifelong nest and safety net. Life was a lottery. Those born into good families were more likely than not to thrive, those born into bad ones were more likely than not to go under. Given that life itself was a chancy business, couples tended to stick together for better or for worse. If for worse, at least it wasn't for long. Thanks to late marriages and early deaths, especially deaths of women in childbirth, marital co-existence in the middle of the last century was for only 15 years on average.

A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep then and woke up today would hardly be able to believe his luck. We are on the whole far more prosperous and healthy and have a much longer life expectancy than our ancestors. A Mrs Rip Van Winkle would be even more surprised. Women's opportunities have been transformed by education, contraception and domestic technology. As for Miss and Master Rip Van Winkle, once set to tasks as soon as they could walk, life has become a beach, home a hotel.

Yet doom and gloom over the present state of the family are rife. Media pundits shake their heads over the hordes of selfish singletons, soaring divorce rates, the costly welfare benefits haemorrhaging into the pockets of lone mothers, and the growing number of disaffected young men who seem all but unemployable.

Do we really need to be despondent? Or is it possible to argue that a new model family is evolving, a little painfully, but much fitter for modern times? Let's turn a few of the shock statistics on their heads, and add some hopeful ones.

First, quality of life surveys reveal that people report high levels of satisfaction with family life - levels are consistently between 70 and 80 per cent. Ninety per cent of us rate family life as "very important". Nine out of 10 people marry, and of those who do, nine out of 10 have children. Only one in 10 people lives alone. Eighty-eight per cent of us live with at least one companion. Nearly half of us live in households that include children. That's a decline since 1961 (from 64 to 49 per cent), but only because we now have smaller families, closer together. The number of "traditional nuclear families" is smaller, because it takes less time to move from life before dependent children to life afterwards.

That is why the number of couples without children now represents a quarter of the population. Add to this our new longevity, and it could mean an additional two decades living tete-a-tete. This affects marriages profoundly. A short, uncertain life span encourages people to cling to what they have. It is the increased potential length of what Shelley called "the longest journey" of marriage that causes so many of us to break up. Marriages today also last for only 15 years on average, but for reasons that are very different. We expect much more when we are looking for a companion for life, rather than a breadwinner or a housewife.

No one should downplay the personal tragedy and pain of divorce, but we are beginning to accept it as a natural stage in the evolution of the modern couple. William J Goode's World Changes in Divorce Patterns (1993) points out that divorce is not a Western disease; it is an economic luxury, epidemic across the world. The rich have always divorced when it suited them. "Divorce is a consumer good," says Goode. Most divorces are initiated by women, now confident that they can manage financially on their own.

It is also important to realise that we have, in fact, absolutely no idea how many irregular liaisons and informal separations existed in the past, before the formalities of divorce made such arrangements measurable. But if biographies and novels are any reliable measure of human behaviour, they were far from unusual occurrences.

Most divorces happen before people have children or after the youngest child is 16, and although almost one in four children lives through his or her parents' divorce, nearly 80 per cent of children under 16 are living with both their natural parents. Only 1 per cent of divorced fathers lose all contact with their children; the vast majority see them at least once a week, and a growing number share custody equally.

It is worth emphasising that the majority of modern marriages are successful. The prediction that four out of ten marriages may break up is far from meaning that nearly half of us are single. The number of remarriages is on the increase, especially in Britain. If we calculate the numbers of people who eventually settle down, rather than just those who strike lucky first time, then success rates rise from between 50 and 60 per cent to between 80 and 90 per cent.

There are certainly more single households than there used to be, but living in such households is a stage in life, before, after or between coupledom, rarely a whole life. And although the increase in lone parent households - from 2 per cent of all households to 7 per cent - is making a noticeable hole in the pockets of the Treasury, 15 per cent of lone mothers every year cease to be lone parents, and most marry within five years. Today's lone parent is part of tomorrow's reconstituted family.

Clamour over the number of couples who break up and regroup distracts attention from the strength of the family networks that go on existing, expanding even, behind the foreground tragedy of divorce. Janet Finch described the continuing strength of the adult family in her seminal book Family, Obligations and Social Change (1989). A 1993 survey by Finch and Mason discovered that 32 per cent of us live less than an hour away from a relative, and only 7 per cent are more than four hours away. "Kindred" is now a flexible concept. "For many people today family means something more than biological affinity or the unit created by marriage," says a sociologist, Jeffrey Weeks of London's South Bank University. "It means something you create for yourself, something that involves interactions, commitment and obligations that have to be negotiated in a world where nothing is pre-given or certain."

Friends, he believes, are becoming just as important as relatives. The new model friendships are much more than convenient temporary handrails before you disappear up the aisle with your best beloved. They are the enduring pacts of the American sitcom Friends and the British film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Such elective affinities can reach the parts that family has failed.

Grandparents, more hale and hearty than ever, and increasingly numerous in today's reconstituted families, are still a vital part of the composite family, supporting their children with more or less welcome advice, child- minding, babysitting, finance, furniture and accommodation. Nearly two- thirds of child care in Britain is undertaken by relatives, most of them grandmothers, and friends.

To be sanguine about the state of the family in general does not imply complacency about the real difficulties facing young people when they first become parents themselves. One of the most obvious is the ambitious new script for lifetime careers adopted by women. If both parents are working full time away from the home, creating a supportive and sustaining domestic environment and achieving the high standards of modern parenting is a juggling act unsustainable except by a wealthy minority. All too often individuals blame each other for what is nothing less than an impossible endeavour.

Perhaps it is time that we threw politically correct pieties to the wind and abandoned this script, and warned young couples that they should budget for a decade of reduced earnings while a family is young.

It may be realistic to accept that a three- or four-day week for both parents, or a half time job for the mother, fits the needs of both pre- school children and their parents much better than two full-time jobs and any amount of professional child care.

The position of fathers is also in flux. One of the most heart-warming achievements of the last few decades has been the seismic shift in the place of fathers in families. But although fathers are eager to participate in family life, the workplace is loath to offer flexibility. This means more stresses on the family.

Another difficulty facing parents is their inexperience. The new, compact, closely spaced families have produced whole generations of young people who have never handled a baby before having one of their own. They are far more in need of advice and information from outside the family than their parents were.

But the advice now given is uniquely demanding. In 1950, parents thought nothing of leaving their children in homes while they were working or travelling. Although the baby-boomer generation that underwent this treatment seems to be thriving well enough, today such behaviour would be classed as close to abuse.

Children's lives have also changed. They spend much less time in the home than they used to. One of the most profound and underestimated influences on families has been universal schooling. Since the Second World War, school has become an increasingly important part of a child's life. Daily absence from home, week in, week out, for a minimum of 11 years and a maximum of 15 years of childhood, has dramatically diminished the opportunities parents have to influence their children.

Of course education has its advantages. But life skills need to be instilled somewhere, somehow. Teachers need much higher status if they are properly to fulfil the role of educators and mentors. Parents need to be closely involved in what is happening. Watch a child's face light up when he sees his mother arrive to help with a school trip, and you will understand why.

Finally, we need to recognise that real homes cannot be bought off the shelf. Despite the vacuum cleaner and the microwave oven, the home demands constant attention, thought and adjustment to the changing needs of the family within. Like a snail's shell, it needs to be tailored to fit. Unsatisfactory homes lie behind the majority of children who fail to thrive: they also cause depression and divorce.

Alice Coleman's hard-hitting Utopia on Trial (1990) examines in detail the design disadvantages of modern housing estates and concludes that "the worse the design, the greater the probability that more families will fail, in more ways, to develop their children's capacity for adjusting to civilised life." Ideal homes may not guarantee ideal lives, but the indications are that nightmare homes do guarantee nightmare lives.

The present drive to improve the appaling housing that lies behind so much of the disaffected state of Britain's inner cities will, I suspect, do much more to strengthen family life than any amount of pious, generalised advice from parenting professionals.

The signs are that, for reasons partly financial, partly ideological, we are about to retreat from the generous but implicitly individualistic social policies of the post war years. Will the new model family that is evolving be able to cope with this challenge? I think so, especially if we begin to sing its praises, instead of constantly condemning it.

What form will it take? Typically it will have a long, four-generational stem and an unpredictable accumulation of lifelong friends; in-laws left over from first marriages, new half-kin from remarriages; godparents and godchildren. Let's take an image from folklore and call it the "maypole family": long and thin, and with any number of strands winding and unwinding around it. A powerful and supportive structure, it will be, in the vast majority of cases, the first resort in a crisis.

Perhaps the most conclusive evidence that we could allow ourselves - to be much more opportunistic than we currently are about the state of the family - comes from children themselves. A survey published in July by Virginia Morrow, of the Centre for Family Research, at Cambridge University, discovered that children accept wide variations in family practice and structures.

Their definitions did not centre on nuclear norms or genetic ties, and they had definite ideas about the importance of siblings, god- and grandparents and friends, as well as about parents. "A family is a group of people which all cares about each other," wrote 13-year-old Tara. "They can all cry together, laugh together, argue together and go through all the emotions together. Some live together as well. Families are for helping each other through life."

Christina Hardyment's latest book is `The Future of the Family', in the Phoenix Predictions Series, price pounds 2

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