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."

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