It was love rather than duty that brought a dear friend of mine to a funeral last week. But it was the kind of love that can be difficult to explain.
He hadn’t lost a blood relative, or a friend. The funeral was instead for the first wife of my friend’s very married father, a woman for whom – unlike a cousin or a brother or even a stepmother – there is no official word. However, she was the family, the beloved mother of my friend’s equally beloved older half-sisters, a fixture in all their long intertwined lives, even if they had never all lived together under one roof. As always in pain, it is not only love for the deceased that unites us, but love for the living and for the mourners.
Families are complicated beasts, not always easily packaged in neat boxes or one-word explanations, but it’s those sprawling complications that make us who we are. What matters in the end, as a thoughtful and nuanced report by Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza made clear this week, is not whether your family fits into a narrow and approved model, but whether they make you feel loved and supported, confident someone would catch you if you fell. In decision making, she argues, “too little attention has been paid to the things that families say matter: relationships, mutual trust, love and time together,” but these should be taken as seriously as family composition or income.
What makes this argument so interesting is that its author cannot be dismissed by an oncoming conservative administration as a bleeding-hearted liberal. De Souza is the daughter of a Scunthorpe steel worker, the former Boris Johnson-appointed headmaster-turned-leader of the academy, whose schools were famous for relentlessly raising standards in deprived neighborhoods, and sees happy families not as something soft and nice to have, but an important and neglected driver of social mobility and life prospects.
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Children who get along with one parent at age 13, he writes, have higher earnings at age 25 than those who don’t. Close family relationships are directly related to GCSE grades, and for adults, believing they can rely on family in a crisis is associated with greater well-being among income groups. Being able to step out into the world confident that someone has your back is important, even if that person doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of a family. However, much of the right-wing press coverage was still wringing its hands, lamenting the shocking collapse of the nuclear family.
True, the report confirms that nearly one in four families are led by a single parent – although this figure cannot be enormously shocking, given that it has barely changed in 20 years – and 44% of children will not see their childhood. living with both parents, due to separation or bereavement or in some cases taken care of. Families are also shrinking: the same percentage of parents have one child and two, although some of these families may grow over time. The cozy old unit of two adults and 2.4 children – the kind many of us remember we don’t have every time we buy a four-pack of something at the grocery store, we get a “family” ticket for a day out that doesn’t cover our real families, or avoiding another nosy question as to why we don’t want kids at all – that’s not necessarily the norm anymore.
But as the report points out, it is difficult to untangle the effects on children of their parents’ separation from the effects of whatever misery prompted them to split up (or even what follows, which may be poverty). What should concern policymakers is why some families seem to survive conflict, change and crisis better than others. Because while “blended” second families aren’t always easy, an initially spiky jumble of steps and half can and miraculously often eventually get back into an emotionally rich and happy new life.
When de Souza’s team interviewed dozens of children and adults to see how they defined the f-word, surprisingly often it wasn’t DNA; some had friends so close they felt like family, but blood relatives they barely knew, while others touchedly talked about all sorts of formative figures in their lives. The most common word used when asked what family means, meanwhile, was “everything”.
Unconventional families aren’t necessarily easy to catch in government statistics, as de Souza points out, or to describe to outsiders. When Labor Deputy Leader Angela Rayner took mourning leave last year, she initially didn’t say who she had lost about her because she didn’t quite know how to explain her relationship with the woman she calls. “her adoptive mother”. The truth was that the woman who had taken a somewhat lost 20-year-old under her wing was the unconditional loving maternal substitute Rayner had relied on for guidance throughout his adult life, after a difficult childhood as a caregiver of his own. biological mother.
“That’s the thing in grief, relationships between people are so complex,” Rayner told me a few months later. “Who is your closest family? For many people, that’s your mother, your father, your son, your daughter – well, that’s not the case for many people. ” The pro-family government de Souza approach recommends embracing a sometimes messy, fuzzy but realistic concept of what it seeks to support.
Some will oppose the words “pro-family”, conjuring up as they make agitated speeches about marriage or right-wing populists offering bribes to reproduce (even if family life for many means supporting elderly parents, not children). But the “family test” initially played by David Cameron – the idea that all domestic politics is examined for its effects on family life, which de Souza wants to revise and revive – seems in retrospect to be a great missed opportunity for change. progressive.
When public health experts warn that children will die this winter in cold, damp homes, refusing to help the poor with their fuel bills would surely be an immediate failure. As well as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s obsession with forcing everyone back to the office, a housing crisis that leaves too many in their thirties thinking of raising children in tiny rented apartments, the exploitation of children’s homes for profit, the expectations. frighteningly long for adolescent mental health services and a social care system that does not allow those who are exhausted from caring for elderly parents to take a break.
If love, time together, trust and a thriving emotional life are the goal, then everyone should be able to support a pro-family policy. Is the traditional family dying? So long live the happy one, whatever its shape.