The family: A nuclear explosion

Teenage mothers, gay parents, a bevy of step-children ... they're all in the family now. And maybe we're the better for it

It's as if, in the past week, the nuclear family has been in free-fall. First came the nine-year-old girl seeking the court's help to continue seeing her step-brother, even though her reconstituted family has now broken up; then came the 26-year-old Rotherham mother of three discovering her child of 12 was expecting; followed by the 12-year-old pregnant Sheffield girl "engaged" to her 14-year-old boyfriend. Alongside, we read of two gay men awaiting the arrival of surrogate twins; and finally we were flooded with photographs of Anthea Turner romping with the children of her boyfriend, Grant Bovey, and Valerie Bercher, Nick Faldo's latest lover, happy in the company of his two daughters and son.

Do these examples of the more unusual ties that bind provide further evidence of our selfish individualism and flight from commitment? Or can we read in these examples a new maturity in our handling of family breakdown and life thereafter?

Certainly, some assumptions have been challenged. What, for instance, of the transient nature of homosexual relationships? The gay couple awaiting twins have been together 11 years, longer than many marriages. And is the wicked stepmother transformed? Both Anthea Turner and Valerie Bercher - not to mention the ex-wives - appear to be handling a delicate situation as best they can for the sake of the children.

The assumption is that the family is in crisis, one which isn't just manifested in the figures on break-up, but also in the research on the quality of life of those who remain together. What we know almost nothing about is what makes for harmonious stability, regardless of whether a unit is gay, straight, nuclear or reconstituted.

One in three marriages break up, usually in the first few years. One in eight children is likely to grow up in a family with a step-parent while a staggering 25 per cent of step-families break up within the first year. Cohabitation has increased tenfold in 25 years and, again, carries a higher failure rate - not least because individuals with low incomes and no jobs tend to drift into it, so they have little on which to build. That's the bad news.

The better news is that eight out of 10 children are living with their biological parents. We are marrying later when, in theory, we're more mature. Over the past three years the divorce rate has stabilised, and there appears greater awareness of the consequences when a family fractures. What's more, we rate family life highly. In the 1996 General Household Survey only 7 per cent said friends were more important than relations. Yet we don't need to watch EastEnders to know that the business of staying together can be very bloody indeed. Everybody longs to get it right. Research, however, almost entirely consists of charting how disastrously it goes wrong.

Among step-families, for instance, the mistake is to believe that love will conquer all. Susan Littlemoore of the Stepfamily Association lists lack of money, lack of time and routines unfamiliar to the children as just a few of the rocks that can rip a family's hull. Last month, the association produced a report which showed that what children who are grafted on to other families dislike most is lack of information. Parents screen the truth "for a child's own good" and create fearful offspring instead. In addition, adults may ignore the right of a boy or a girl to grieve for the family that has passed. A new unit may be founded on love, but for children it's born out of loss.

So what do we know about the factors that may create a contented family? In Life and How to Survive It, Robin Skynner lists emotional independence; parents in charge within a democracy, and neither anarchic nor authoritarian and with children's views respected; conflicts resolved; support from the extended family and a transcendental value system which indicates that there is more to life than satisfying me and my needs.

While such behaviour may come naturally to some, for most it's several damn challenges too far. Candida Hunt is assistant director of Family Links, an organisation which works in schools to help staff and pupils with emotional literacy. "Good enough parents," she says, "have to look after themselves in order to look after others. You can't pour water from an empty jug."

Such is the contrary nature of families, you could analyse a long-lived unit and still uncover a 1950s nightmare - dominant father, dependent mother, bullied children, turmoil and tears. Why does the family remain intact? Dr Michael Anderson of Newcastle University's Centre for Family Studies suggests that perhaps the adults have decided that the relationship is worth more than any event - however traumatic. "People have become more aware of themselves as individuals and show increased sensitivity as to how that self should be valued," he explains. "But others may also accept that misery is a part of life, and its existence isn't necessarily the reason for making life-changing decisions."

But, the future may be different. New Labour has recognised the importance of early intervention to prevent teenage pregnancies; the need for education on relationships in schools; more family support and the necessity of a decent income. Who knows? One day it may even accord a variety of partnerships the same rights in law as married couples - on the basis that it's not who's in the family that counts but how they behave.

'The longer we're together, the more stable it is'

JOSIE EDMONDS, 25, had her first child, Leon, now eight, when she was 16, and his sister Demi two years later. She then split up from their father. Her partner George Lawson has a son, Tayler, eight, from a previous relationship. Neither Josie or George have ever married. They've lived together for two years. Josie earns pounds 15 a week, working part-time. George works in a factory, earning pounds 162 for a 40-hour week. Josie's parents were divorced when she was seven. All three grandparents get on well.

Josie: "One rule is not to contradict each other in front of the children. We try to understand each other's viewpoint. When I met George I was so suspicious I put him through all sorts of tests, but he's naturally laid-back and he's stuck with us. Quality time is important and the family babysits sometimes - but it's difficult because George gets up at 4am for work, and he's asleep in the chair by 8pm."

George: "I'd never known a family like it. Josie was so protective of her feelings and the kids kept telling me I wasn't their dad. It was just a matter of patience. The longer we're together, the more stable it is. I've shown an interest in the children and tried to build up their trust. This is the longest relationship I've been in. I've found the woman and kids I love, so I want to make a go of it."

'I never tried to take their mother's place'

SUE STOESSL was head of London Weekend Television's research and management services, and helped to launch Channel 4. Now she sits on a number of boards and is a consultant. Sir Ronald Halstead is a retired industrialist and active farmer. Sue Stoessl was 42 and once married when, in 1979, she met Sir Ronald, a decade older. He had recently been widowed and had two sons, Andrew, now 28, and Richard, now 30, as well as a seven- week-old son, Daniel.

Sue: "My own mother had died when I was eight, so I knew how much the boys needed tender loving care. From the outset they were absolutely terrific, and very easy to love. I was also older and my career was well established, so I could take the time to be with them and they, in turn, responded to the interest I took. In a way, it was mutual love at first sight. They called me Sue. When my stepmother arrived, my own mother's photographs were removed and we weren't allowed to mention her in conversation. I made sure that didn't happen to my step-sons. I never tried to take their mother's place. I think we've always treated each other as friends. Now I have a step-grandchild, and I feel very fortunate. I was looking for a family, and I was lucky enough to find one."

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SAP Data Migration Consultant

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

    Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    Linux Systems Administrator

    £33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

    (Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice