The nuclear family is dead: long live the extended family

Divorce and remarriage can often lead to more love and increased support, reports Emma Cook
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Reports on the imminent demise of the family may be greatly exaggerated: it is alive and kicking, if sometimes in a new form, a survey published this week will contend.

Alongside the nuclear family of parents and their children, a new social organism is developing: the extended network of step-parents, stepchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. It is a grouping that is simply reflecting demographics, expanding and adapting to increased rates of divorce and remarriage.

The Family Policy Studies Centre (FPSC) report, based on the attitudes of 2,000 families, shows that families are infinitely adaptable: they may change and re-form but the members continue to offer one another love and support.

"The family is alive and kicking," said Francis McGlone, a senior researcher at the FPSC. "It is extremely elastic, and is able to stretch to encompass all sorts of people within it."

Take Jennie, 13, whose mother Fiona, 38, director of adult education with the Scottish Community Education Council, separated from her partner David six years ago to marry Jim, 45. She now enjoys strong relationships with both sets of parents and their respective partners as well as various step- and half-relations across the country. For Jennie there have been many positive aspects to this complex merger of relatives and strangers.

"I like having this sort of family," says Jennie. "My mum seems much happier and so does my dad. I also feel I've got more people to support and care for me - I've always got lots of different relatives to visit and things to do."

Mr McGlone says: "We found that the grandmother is still the most important figure in the extended family, and that after the husband they are the major child-carers when mother is going out to work."

His work, which will be published as part of the British Social Attitudes Survey, shows that families are so hardy they can survive break-up and re-form.

"The idea that the family is suffering breakdown - that view of academics and the Labour Party - is, quite frankly, bunk," says Mr McGlone. "Many family members still live closely together and support one another. The idea that the family is dispersed around Britain is wrong. What you have is an amazing strength of kinship networks and the mutual support between these networks can be fantastic."

Jean, 31, and Stephen, 36, are a good example of such close family ties. Both divorcees before they married, their re-formed family is now so extended that Jean's children have six grandmothers to choose from. To complicate matters, Jean's parents are also divorced and she has two half-brothers, a step-brother and sister. Which means her children have 10 aunts and uncles in total - all living quite nearby. "Now the children have two fathers they both call Dad," says Jean. "It seems normal to them. That's the way their life is. They're getting attention from both sides. If you look at it from a material point, they're ending up with more holidays and presents and more love from people they wouldn't otherwise have known."

Jean also relies on her mother and grandmother to look after the children when she works part-time. "I feel my family and Stephen's will support us in any way we need. To a degree the kids view everybody as a potential relative, another gran and grandad."

Even though this type of domestic web is gradually becoming more prevalent, it's still viewed as dysfunctional compared with the traditional family set-up. Cheryl Walters, support services co-ordinator for the National Stepfamily Association, says: "All levels, from politicians downwards, hold on to the fantasy of the nuclear family and the extended step-family is always presented as a deficit, which is very misleading. It's not about break-up but emotional re-investment."

This means the advantages are frequently overlooked. As Ms Walters says, in a successful step-family a child can have a potential of four committed adults rather than two. "The hard thing is coming in on something with a history that you don't feel part of - it can bring up different feelings. But even they can be worked out and negotiated."

Psychologist Dr Roy Bailey, specialising in social behaviour, says: "We tend to look at the family as mummy, daddy and children as opposed to what function it actually fulfils in civilisation. But it develops itself to survive; it's creating another alternative to ensure the next generation continues."

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