If the myth of the nuclear family was never really tenable, in today’s world it’s a cruel catastrophe. The idea of mum, dad (or mum-mum or dad-dad) and 2.2 kids, own home & garden, dog and car walking into the sunset is a grotesque distortion of what is really possible in the UK today for the majority of people, and is, in any case, not really a great model to aspire to. Here’s why.
The way that our society is structured, socially and economically, makes it almost impossible for anyone who does not have inherited or accumulated wealth to live a sane, healthy and wholesome life in the nuclear model. Those who attempt to, too often end up self-exploiting at the expense of their – and so their family’s – wellbeing, accumulating debt which will result in poverty in old age, relying upon extended community structures (whether formal or informal) to shore up the crumbling edifice, or some combination of the foregoing. Why?
Because the sums just do not add up in the basic economies of money, time and energy. Think about it. The British work the longest hours in Europe, spend perhaps the least time with their children and families and have some of the unhappiest teenagers in the entire continent. It’s almost impossible to support a family on one wage, unless you are in a super high flying position, so if there are two parents, they both have to work, often full time. If there is only one parent, the calculations are eye-watering. Parents end up with hardly any time to spend with their children, and they have to pay over the odds to get someone else to. Why?
The first answer is because the cost of living, particularly of housing, when compared with incomes, is very high. This is a swingeing indictment of the way that successive Governments have failed to address what is a real housing crisis – with desperate breadwinners working every hour under the sun to secure their name on the deed of a property because of an ideological climate in which home ownership is considered superior and the high cost and insecurity of decent rented accommodation. I can’t help asking, as many people have in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster why one of the richest economies in the world has failed to provide decent, affordable and secure rented housing to the largest group of people?
A second answer relates to the irrational use and cost of resources which arises from trying to create a society on the nuclear model: a washing machine, 1 or 2 cars, fridge, freezer, boiler, etc in every house or flat! How expensive, how wasteful, how alienating, how ecologically unsustainable – how basically silly! The only people who really benefit are the companies that sell these things for profit. And it’s in their interests to encourage us to buy more, and replace more often. For which we end up borrowing more money. I am not against the profit economy – but it should be kept firmly in its place as serving creativity, innovation and diversity for the betterment of society; it should not be an out of control hydra which keeps springing new, and parasitic heads. That means a proper ‘right’ relationship between market and socially driven sectors and values, with the costs and benefits to humans and other species, individually and as a group – not profit – as the overriding concern.
Finally, another set of factors in the cruel myth of the nuclear family is the reality of our life cycles. As my dear friend and towering polymath, Rev Prof June Boyce-Tillman, pointed out to me, in the advanced industrial world, we only spend around half our lives (if we are fortunate enough to be well and non-disabled) in our economically productive years: we spend one quarter growing up – when we need and deserve intensive love, care, guidance and attention – and the last quarter ‘growing down’ – when, once again, we need love, care, support and attention. In these two quarters, we are best cared for, at least in part, by people who genuinely love and want to be with us – because both for growing children and for growing-down elders, isolation and disconnection have devastating consequences. Often people who are paid to care do give the most incredible levels of personal support and loving attention to younger and older people – this is not an attack on them. And of course there are also many abuses, the most hidden and insidious of which is resentful and unloving ‘care’ which falls beneath the radar of what is usually called ‘abuse’. The conditions and wages of people – mainly women – providing these care services – often paid for by women – are an outrage: work that is this important to society ought to be well paid, high status, supported and secure. This would create a virtuous circle of valuing, in which compassion can more easily thrive.
However, there is also the question of how to pay for paid care. And the situation, at least in England and Wales is nothing short of a national scandal – because very few people can actually afford the standard of care for their loved ones which every child and elder ought to be entitled to expect as they grow up or grow down. Many are paying for both. What happens in reality is often a patchwork of self-exploitation, sub-standard care, skilful or problematic use of informal care, and perhaps worst of all – leaving children and elders alone to self manage, long before, or long after, they are capable of doing this in a way that could be empowering and wholesome for them.
I can’t help asking, as many people others do, why one of the richest economies in the world has failed to provide decent, affordable and secure care for the majority of children and elders whose parents and children (if they have them) are busy trying to make a living?
However, June makes two further points: the first is that a disproportionate part of the burden of this nuclear disaster falls upon women, because they are more likely than men to take responsibility for children and elders in their family and to do so with on average much lower incomes than men. The second point is that the whole thing does not add up: what we really need is a wage economy in which a family can be financially supported on two part-time wages, and nobody is expected to work more than three days a week (or equivalent hours). Why? Because two of the most important jobs in the world are best done by people who are doing them predominantly for love: bringing up children and helping elders grow down. Both contribute to the health and dignity of the entire population (think prison numbers, think ageing and the NHS, think social care, think how you would like to grow old…). Which means a completely different way of envisioning a ‘successful’ and fair economic and social model. It does mean progressive taxation, and it does mean a big culture shift around the value and definition of ‘work’. Many feminists have been saying this a for long time. Now the time is not just ripe, but desperately urgent, to change the face of politics and economics in favour of a society that is humane and socially – as well as ecologically – sustainable.
And a final note on the nuclear family – in reality hardly anyone really lives in one. We know it takes a village to bring up a child- but it also takes a village to support a healthy marriage or partnership, a lone individual, a lone parent, or any kind of family structure. It also takes a whole village to supply the contact – physical, social, emotional, spiritual and creative – that most humans ned to feel whole and well. So, in reality, people break the bounds of the nuclear family all the time – we creatively invent our own ‘families’, using a range of relationships and resources within our communities, sharing time, attention, homes, appliances, cars, childcare, food and tools. But so often we are doing this in a beleaguered and necessarily reactive way, as it dawns on us that life in the ‘adult’ world is just not a lot of fun, and we find that only genuine human help and connection can smooth our way. The failures of this system are everywhere apparent – in homelessness, prison numbers and mental ill health. But the small daily triumphs of millions of families up and down the country are rarely celebrated – or taken really seriously by policy makers. As a result, we weave our lives invisibly in the most fantastic tapestries, with rips, rents and lots and lots of love and laughter – but also a huge amount of guilt and pain. And precious little help from those who make the big decisions. The time to change that narrative is very, very long overdue.
20th June 2017