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."

Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
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
Latest stories from i100
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

    CRM Developer (MS Dynamics 2011/2013, JavaScript)

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: CRM MS Dynamic...

    IT Teacher

    £22000 - £33000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: ICT TeacherLeedsRandstad ...

    Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

    Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

    £30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution