Mum, dad and the kids
HAPPY FAMILIES’ is a children’s card game in the UK. Each card depicts a jolly smiling family Mr. Bun the Baker, Mrs. Bun, his floury, round-faced wife, Billy and Betty Bun, their two currant-eyed children. And there are several families in the pack, each headed by an eponymous tradesman: Mr. Chips the Carpenter, Mr. Bones the Butcher, Mr. Tape the Tailor and so on. Players begin with a chaotic selection of cards and the aim is to recreate, by judicious swapping, a series of orderly, complete, nuclear Happy Families.
Not surprisingly the game is just like the Western society that spawned it. Not because every person in our society actually is a nestling in a neat nuclear nest, but because society, like the card game, is constructed around the assumption that they should be.
In fact less than one-third of British households are nuclear families — that is families composed of Mum, Dad and the kids — and only one in ten in the UK and one in six in the US are organised like the Bun family with the father out at work while his wife tends children and house. This leaves a lot of people unsorted, jumbled up in the pack of cards, a lot of family members without what we have come to regard as complete families.
You would never think this was the case when you switch on the TV, open your child’s first reader or flick through the pages of a magazine. Here the Bun family rules OK. Their four pairs of eyes smile winningly from cornflakes packets, their four bottoms fit snugly into a Ford Cortina, their four chairs stand neatly around the family dining table. These images reflect a family ideal that so pervades our lives that people not involved in a nuclear household are taken to be exceptions despite the fact that they comprise the majority of Western society.
True, the couple without children, the unmarried mother, the old man living alone, the flat full of bachelor boys, are not considered freaks. But they are thought of as people whose lives are somehow incomplete, who are in transition to or from the ideal.
This strange dislocation of ideal from reality is one reason for the widespread suspicion that the family is ‘breaking down’. We weigh up divorce and illegitimacy statistics and see the nuclear edifice crumbling into social chaos. The notion of the nuclear family breaking down presupposes a time when it was firm and true. Yet there is no evidence that this was ever the case. Family records between 1564 and 1821 in the UK show the incidence of nuclear households to be about 40 percent exactly the same as in 1966.
This implies that the nuclear family has never been as dominant as is generally thought And it leaves one wondering where exactly the extended family fits in. Just as powerful as the myth of a dominant nuclear family is the idea that it ‘evolved’ out of a previously dominant extended family that still ‘lingers on’ in working class communities to this day.
History tells a different story, a tale of families not so easily pigeonholed. High mortality does not make for multi-generation households. If a family in preindustrial Europe was large it was because it included just as many Third World ‘families’ today include servants and serfs as well as relatives. People simply lived, and died, in ways that seemed practicaL ‘The Family’ had as little meaning to ordinary people in Europe as it does today in many parts of the Third World. There is not even a word for ‘family’ in parts of Africa and Latin America In Botswana the nearest equivalent islolssapa which just means’compound’, the place people live.
The Family, as a social ideal in the West. has a very short history. It was born in the same instance as Mr. Bun himself was born. At the same time as industrialisation created a class of wage-earning workers, so there emerged another smaller class of tradespeople who provided services to be purchased with the new wages. Mr. Bun, Mr. Bones and Mr. Chips were the founding fathers of the middle class. And it was in the middle classes that the nuclear family ideal, based on division of labour between husband and wife first appeared. If Mr. Bun was successful, Mrs. Bun and the little currant bunlets did not have to work and she became the first woman who could claim to be ‘just a housewife’.
The family ideal was born but few households could afford to live up to it Women and children continued to work until new laws, enacted in the spirit of the new family ideal, barred children from factories and mines altogether and turned women into the dependent ‘reserve’ labour force they are today. It was at this time that the homely world of the family became distinct from the world of work. In fact today’s Western family can only he understood as something different from, or actually opposed to. the ‘vulgar cash nexus’ of industrial society. In pre-industrial societies the family is the factory everyone works. And everyone consumes what Ihey produce. In our society the family becomes as sociologist Christopher Lasch puts it: our’haven in a heartless world’.
It’s a powerful image, expressing exactly what we hase come to expect from family life. Where else can we demand, and receive, emotional support? Who, apart from our parents, spouse, children, ever sees us cry? Who else do we dare cuddle or slap? Though we no longer expect our families to provide us with an income, with education or health care, we are now asking for many more intangible things warmth, tenderness, love. But because the separation of our isolated 8 nuclear families from the rest of society is so complete, all our emotional needs turn inwards, like doves pinioned in a cage, and we are often disappointed. One sixth of children in West Germany are under psychiatric care. And in the US one million children are seriously injured by their parents each year.
Just as work for wages separated home from factory, so the division of labour between men and women, that template of inequality, became lodged at the heart of society. The ideal sounds cosy enough: men work outside the home, children concentrate on their education, while women create a family haven for them to return to each evening. But the cosy image conceals a division of labour, and a pattern of dependence, that is difficult to see as anything but mundane exploitation.
Housewives work on average 77 hours a week but they are often completely dependent on the money their husbands bring home. Just as wages give a factory owner power over a man, so the sexual division of labour that makes him the main wage earner gives him power — whether or not he chooses to exploit it — over his wife and children.
The two hierarchies at work and at home are meshed like interlocking gears turning the engine of industrial society. We see the hierarchy of market relations in the home each time a woman asks her husband for the housekeeping money. When a boss dictates to his secretary, or trips over the office cleaning-lady’s mop, we see the sexual division of labour in the world of work. And each time an army sergeant issues orders to his corporal he is repeating a lesson learnt from his father; a lesson that the corporal will in turn teach his children.
The lessons of inequality are learned at our mothers’ knee. As psychologist B.F. Skinner The lessons of inequality are learned at our mothers’ knee. As psychologist B.F. Skinner commented wryly: ‘Society attacks early when the individual is still helpless.’ And this is one of the reasons why the ideal of nuclear family life is so strong: because it meshes so perfectly with the forces that sustain the existing power structures in society and produces citizens that fit perfectly into the roles created for them. In fact a large part of American Sociology has been devoted to demonstrating exactly that, producing a ‘functional’ model of a family that serves society.
But the nuclear family is not so indispensable or widespread. In this respect the World Fertility Survey statistics are misleading. They tell us that the nuclear family is the most common household form in Third World countries taking part in the survey. But these are not nuclear families in the sense that we understand them because they are not idealised, isolated and woven into the fabric of industrial society.
Families are about survival for most people in the preindustrial world. And those people create whatever relationships are needed to get them through the year. What makes a family stay together is often simple co-operative economics. Where people need to help one another in order to survive, then as many as are needed to make survival possible will bind themselves to one another with ties far more binding than love and idealism.
If all this sounds hard it is because we have managed to soften the sharp economic edge of family relations with love and smoothed our entry into it with romance and lace. Love is not something the poor seek. It creeps up on them unawares. Does a mother dare love her child when she knows the chances of it dying before the year is out are two to one? Does a man look for a wife to love and cherish or just a woman with a strong back and shoulders to weed his fields and carry his water? If there is simply time for eyes to meet in an understanding smile, who would look for more?
When the family is released from its more urgent life-and-death functions we can afford to look within it for love. And it is precisely because the family tends to be our only source of love that we defend it so desperately and find it difficult to stand back dispassionately to excavate to its foundations.
Buried deep in those family foundations, underpinning its whole structure, is marriage. Binding man to woman and woman to man, marriage has a history far longer than the nuclear family ideaL Marriage predates history itself No-one knows whether we humans ever inhabited an Eden where women controlled their wombs and their wealth, but there are no matriarchies today. Many social historians believe that patriarchy the heavy arms of male dominance that hold the whole world in their embrace has marriage at its roots. For the same reason that it is hard to believe in the economic underpinnings of family relations, it is difficult to accept that a contract that so many of us enter into freely. with joy and hope for the future, can have crude enslavement at its base. Because marriage is about ownership of people.
To imagine a world where women did not marry is to imagine a world of children without fathers or more to the point fathers without children. Children in preindustrial society are precious assets. Not because they bring joy to their parents but simply because a dusty black moppet’s high-pitched shouts can scare more birds off more ears of corn than she could ever eat in a year. If only the mother claimed parenthood then her children would ally themselves to her alone. Men would receive their share of the community’s wealth out of the kindness of womens hearts.
But marriage tipped the scales of power to men’s advantage. Now they are his children and she is his wife. They labour, willingly it is true, but under his ultimate authority. He works too, of course, but the unequal nature of the marriage contract is highlighted by the simple stark fact that according to the United Nations, women work twice as hard as men. What could better demonstrate that men rule their wives?
Marriage takes two rights away from a woman her right to ownership of what she and her children produce and, where family planning is not available, her right not to bear children. Inheritance in most countries passes through men, yet women contribute more than their fair share to any wealth a family manages to save. And, as for childbearing, a free woman would not conceive again while still weak and recovering from her previous birth. A free woman would simply refuse to have intercourse. But a married woman has that right stripped from her. And if that, too, seems hard to accept, it is worth remembering the battle some women in the West are having today to bring cases of rape within marriage to court. ‘My husband won’t let me use birth control’ is one of the most common reasons for women bearing more children than they want.
Control of their wombs — the right to choose when and how many children they will bear is today being restored to women throughout the world. And, though the availability of the pill and other forms of birth control have had a tremendous impact, that is not the only thing that has caused this unprecedented change in womens’ lives.
Wage-labour, as it has developed in the world today, is a mixed blessing, It has forced the factory-home to split into the factory and the home. It has separated workers from owners and women from men. But where there are jobs for women it gives them a real option to decide whether to work for a wage or bear children to contribute to family income.
And this chance to control her biological and economic destiny gives a woman for the first time in centuries, if not in history —the wings of independence.
If that means changing the rules of the Happy Families game, would we really want anything less? It is only a game after all. And it should be the players, not the game, that dictate the rules.
Societies all over the world play their game by different rules. In parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, where there is no wealth to inherit and where women are as likely as men to earn a wage, many women go through their whole lives unmarried, relying on sisters, brothers and children for family support. In other parts of Africa men have more than one wife and the women work side by side in his fields. These societies play their own game and chaos has not resulted. But if development follows the same path as it has in the West then we may find we have imposed our ideal on their diversity, and forced our divisions on them.
The argument most often put forward for clinging to the nuclear ideal is that enormous suffering would occur if we abandoned it But another sort of suffering happens day by day because of the rigidity of the ideal. Everything in our society is geared to the nuclear family machine housing, social benefits, careers’, working hours. The problems for the majority not hitched to the machine range from the heartache of parents whose children have flown the nuclear nest to the solitary struggle of a single mother trying to make ends meet.
This is not a recommendation for the abolition of family life. It is a plea for the abolition of the Happy Families game, the game that creates winners of the neatly sorted, and losers of the rest, but which really makes pawns of us all.
This special report appeared in the mum, dad and the kids - the family under fire issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.