Amy Jenkins: Don't be fooled by all this fiction. What's so great about family life?

Share
Related Topics

Sam Cam is going to have a baby. This is slightly annoying if, like me, you are fed up with the current trend of fetishising family life among politicians. We've already been treated to phoney details about the mess David makes in the kitchen – and the soccer matches Gordon watches. As if. How much more of it are we in for if our new PM is knee deep in nappies?

Add to that the appetite for political WAGs – and the possibility gets mooted that Samantha and her pregnancy could swing a number of votes. But why are we so sentimental about the idea of family life? No one sane is actually getting married any more. Formal marriage rates are at an all-time low (although the Tories would like to stop the rot with tax breaks).

Family is not an inherently good thing. Family is like the weather. It can be very good and very bad. We all know this. We know it intimately. We've all had families. But still, we like collectively to forget it somehow.

Tolstoy famously said that happy families are all happy in the same way – but I can't think of a single extended family which makes the word "happy" spring to mind. Life just isn't like that. It would be like saying a hospital was happy. You might find a hospital that was successful, effective, had a good atmosphere and kind, considerate staff – a marvellous hospital, in fact – but you still wouldn't use the word happy because the life of a hospital necessarily includes such messy painful things. Well, so does the life of a family.

Ask a policeman. If a woman has been murdered, the prime suspect – straight off the bat, no questions asked – will be the husband or partner. Why? Because 40 per cent of all female murder victims are killed by a partner or ex-partner. That's two women a week, by the way. Till death us do part.

And that's just the extreme end of things. There's also the 12.9 million incidents of domestic violence that get reported every year. A staggering one in four women in the UK experience domestic violence in their lifetime. And bear in mind most domestic violence goes unreported.

It's famously hard to know what marriage is really like for the participants. Other people's marriages remain something of a mystery. But these figures tell us one thing for sure: marriage is not a particularly safe place for women. A woman is far, far more likely to encounter violence within the family than she is to encounter it in the street, even if she lives in the most dispossessed quarter of her city. And yet we idealise the family.

Perhaps it's because marriage and family life is good for children. The right-wing think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, has just published research claiming that children who do not grow up in a two-parent family are 75 per cent more likely to fail educationally and 70 per cent more likely to become addicted to drugs. This is disputed by those who point out that people who choose to commit to marriage in a formal way rear children successfully for class reasons and cultural reasons – not because of the fact of the marriage itself. However, the basic principle that children benefit from stable family situations is clearly sound.

The trouble is that although marriage may be good for children, children are not good for marriage. In her enjoyable new book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin points out that although parents insist that their children are a major source of happiness, this simply isn't true. More marriages fail in the 18 months after the first child is born than at any other time. Nor does the social science bear the idea out. One study showed that women found child care "only slightly more pleasant than commuting" (which strangely marvellous description somehow sums it up – even though I adore my son more than life itself, even though I've never commuted). Others show that marital satisfaction takes a nose dive after the first child is born and picks up again only when the children leave.

Perhaps we shouldn't be quite so happy for the Camerons, then, if the return of their marital satisfaction is to be further delayed. Their four-year-old, Arthur, might have left home in 2024. Now they'll have to wait until 2028 for happiness to return. And, in any case, how can we possibly desire to elect Cameron if we are so convinced of the importance of family? How can he be an available and doting dad if he's also trying to get his head round a big new job – running the country? To say nothing of whether we really want a prime minister who's exhausted by sleepless nights and 3am feeds.

I don't deny that Sam Cam looked glowing in all those pictures this week. But when she was asked if she felt well she said rather endearingly: "Not really." That's pregnancy for you. And now she's got to go on the road for six weeks and be a symbol of the good old Tory staple – family values. As if family was the mysterious root of all good, as if it was the answer to something. It's not. It's just one of the ways that we choose to live.

Lawrence and Pike make a good match

D H Lawrence published Women in Love in 1920 and one commentator observed: "I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps — festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven."

Then in 1969, Ken Russell made a film of it, famous mainly for its naked wrestling scene. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed grapple with each other, memorably sweaty and homoerotic, in front of a roaring fire. It was one of the first mainstream films to show male genitals and, fittingly, it generated the same sort of controversy as the book had done.

Having had something of a revival in the 1960s – helped by Lady Chatterley's obscene publication trial – Lawrence then went out of fashion again. But BBC4 has just announced a new film of Women in Love with Rosamund Pike in the role of Gudrun, the absurdly eccentric sister played by Glenda Jackson in the Russell film.

Is Lawrence back? I wouldn't be surprised. I read Women in Love recently and it's astonishingly modern – not the C-word, or the sex – but the sensibility. The attention to psychological insight, the intimacy Lawrence has with his characters – and therefore the intimacy you, the reader, have with them – put you into a kind of time machine. You feel Lawrence would have loved our world of therapy and self-help – of endless navel-gazing. It'll be fascinating to see what one of our most interesting young actresses makes of Gudrun Brangwen.

Booker's time machine takes us back to 1970

For some reason I'm more excited by the Lost Booker than I am by all the prizes for contemporary novels put together. Two years after the Booker was first launched, the prize moved from April to November and ceased to be awarded retrospectively. This meant a number of excellent novels published in 1970 fell through the net and simply weren't eligible. A shortlist of six has been drawn up and the public can vote for the winner online.

The whole enterprise is a quirky publicity generator for the Man Booker – but no less fun for that. There's nothing like the "test of time" when it comes to books. I have one friend who won't read contemporary fiction at all – and I, too, am wary of it. It is – by definition, almost – overrated. The other good thing about the Lost Booker is that the books can probably be got for 1p on Amazon (plus postage).

Straight talk

The Office for National Statistics has announced that hair straighteners now outsell hair dryers for the first time. This is no surprise. Frizzy unruly curls have never really been acceptable in polite society.

Men solve the problem by wearing their hair really short, but for women there's nothing more shaming than a bad hair day. Remember the fuss about Cherie Blair's "bird's nest hair" when she was caught on the hop?

No wonder that in the 1970s straight hair vs curls became a feminist issue. Good feminists abandoned ironing their long hair. For a brief moment, they refused to be tamed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tim Bell has lamented the fact that people don't do what they're told any longer  

Do what you’re told…or else. Now that rings a Bell

Simon Kelner
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?