The question what we are to think of the family has taken on a new urgency. We are flooded with instructions. Thatcherism is identified with a call to return to Victorian values. These consist in the teaching and learning of a moral code, respect for and obedience to a patriarchal figure, and a subordinate and primarily domestic role for women. The return is thus a return to the quintessential family. On the other hand, following the 1960s’ denunciation of the family by psychiatrists and sociologists as the seat of all conflict and derangement, we now have the radical-socialist feminists who regard the family in much the same light. Far from the family being that which is essential to the structure of society, on whose preservation we depend for the future of civilised life, they regard it as an instrument of exploitation: an institution designed for the oppression of women and children, and propped up by all the buttresses of a masculine ideology. Presented thus, the conflict of attitudes towards the family may seem a straight fight between right and left, a political battle in the narrowest sense. Or it may seem a conflict between the self-interested conservatism of men, and the imaginative radicalism of women, who, if they are feminists, tend now to present themselves as revolutionaries or nothing. Unsurprisingly, such dichotomies do not help us greatly in settling, at a practical level, whether or not the family as an institution is at all costs to be defended.
One thing is certain: the family is the norm. In Cohabitation without Marriage Michael Freeman and Christina Lyon argue that the law constantly assimilates non-marriage to marriage, the setting up of a ‘free’ non-marital household to the establishment of a regular legitimate family. The consequence is a tendency to impose on cohabitation the hierarchical relation between partners that is crystallised in marriage. Equality between the sexes is almost impossible to maintain in the eyes of the law, however egalitarian the intentions of the couple when they began to live together. Inexorably, especially if they have children, they are forced into the mould of patriarchy and subordination. The law does not care for joint responsibility or even for shared authority. There must be a head. Inequality, it is argued, is built into the concept of the family.
Steven Mintz, in A Prison of Expectations, describes the family life of a selection of Victorian literary figures, English and American: in doing so, he casts considerable light on the development of the concept in the 19th century. The family, he argues, became more and more important as it became a bastion of security against the shifts and uncertainties of the outside world. There were many different threats to a well-loved form of life, especially for the middle classes – and it will not be forgotten how thoroughly middle-class are the ideals to which Mrs Thatcher is recalling us. There was, first, the egalitarianism of the French Revolution, which involved a demand not only for equality between classes but for equality between the sexes. There was the spectacle, at least among the lower classes, of women and children going to work outside the home. Above all, there was the growing threat to religion posed by Darwinism. Man was diminished, spiritual values undermined. Mintz is most persuasive when he argues that the fear of Darwinism (coming, I would add, in the wake of the new Evangelical movement) led to the sanctification of the family, and especially of the woman’s role within it. Love must be spiritualised, both to distinguish it from the sin of lust, and to give the family itself a religious foundation, centred on the worship of the Angel in the House. The self, unleashed in all its unreliability by the Romantic movement, had to be thoroughly subjugated at home. The role of a wife was to be selfless, and to teach her children, especially her daughters, to be like her. Brothers and sisters must love one another, for this love was pure. It was also economically necessary, for unmarried daughters might ultimately need all the help they could get from their siblings. Those, like Samuel Butler, who attempted to break away from the family, or who wrote about it frankly or satirically, were afflicted by the most terrible guilt. What we may think of as the great era of the family, to which we half-nostalgically turn our thoughts at Christmas – Christmas trees and the snow outside, the little ones round the fire, the gentlemen coming in from hunting – was a defence. It was the great entrenchment of the middle classes contra mundum.
The trouble with the radical alternatives is that they are so inexpressibly bleak. In What is to be done about the family? the issues are discussed in essays by seven feminists, including, most intelligently, Lynne Segal, who opens and closes the collection by confronting Thatcherism head-on. ‘No amount of pressure to strengthen traditional ideas on women’s place in the family,’ she argues, ‘can really succeed today. Women will not retire from waged work.’ Perhaps more important even than work is the general climate within which women now assume that they will make their own choices about whether to marry or not, and whether to have children. But it is clear from this collection of essays that the first enthusiasm for dismantling the family has already begun to wane among feminists. The desire to introduce genuine equality and independence into family structures by paying wages for housework is seen to be retrograde. It would simply polarise ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’, increasing the distance between public and private life. The fun of bashing men is necessarily short-lived. Though some women can live without men, not all can, or want to, do so. Even if some women are prepared to have children through Artificial Insemination by Donor (an anonymous donor and no sexual involvement), not all, or even many, think this a satisfactory procedure. The old image of the family – if not the Victorian jumbo-family, then the smiling breakfast-family of the cornflakes advertisement – keeps reappearing in the most disconcerting way. One of the most amusing essays in this collection is by Wendy Clark, a lesbian, who has tried time and again to set up alternative communal living establishments which will provide a true home without the horrors of family life. What particularly distresses her is the way all the members insist on going back to their families for Christmas. She records in touching detail how one alternative household, trying to become a ‘family substitute’, covered a wall in the dining-room with photographs of themselves and their parents and aunts and uncles at various stages of life, in order to give themselves the illusion of having common ancestors. It is easy to imagine the use of such a device in a Children’s Home, where children may have to pretend that they live in a family, and where everyone acknowledges that they are deprived because they don’t, but it seems a sad reflection on collective living, voluntarily undertaken, that ancestors should have to be invented. It is clear, moreover, that the constant coming and going among the inhabitants of such households is disruptive, and is caused by the tensions generated by trivial questions, such as who is to empty the waste-paper baskets, as well as larger questions, such as who is to sleep with whom. Whatever may be said against the family as an institution, the former kind of question usually gets settled in the end by a kind of convention, and the latter, despite what we are told about the prevalence of incest, doesn’t often arise. The difficulty, then, with the alternatives is that there is a marked absence of cosiness about them: there is too little that can be taken for granted. If we have to ask ourselves every day whether the arrangements ought to be different, whether we could think of some better way to live, the pressure gets too great. Most members of communal households end up living by themselves. It must be an enormous relief.
No number of battered children or unloving parents should distract our attention from the fact that loving parents are the best possible security for a child. They may be his salvation. In ‘Autistic’ Children: New Hope for a Cure Niko and Elisabeth Tinbergen put forward the view that autism, a childhood affliction for which until now there has seemed to be no cure, is an emotional and motivational conflict out of which the child may be gradually led with the patience and co-operation of loving adults who are prepared to give time to the observation and encouragement of their child. It is hard to accept completely the optimism of the Tinbergens. But their book is fascinating and plausible in so far as it derives the definition of autism from the most detailed observtion of animals other than humans, when they are in a state of conflict. The conclusion must be that the more an autistic child can be drawn into his own family, the more likely he is to become normal. Emotional balance and security make education possible (for all children, not just the autistic), and security is still best served by the family.
A yet more optimistic and less controversial view of the benefits of family life is presented in a new book about adoption, Thicker than water? by Alice Heim. Dr Heim has written a very engaging book about bringing up children, based on her own experience of two adopted children but reinforced by the answers to an informal questionnaire she sent out to adoptive parents and adopted children. The main conclusion seems to be that adopting can be extremely satisfactory for all parties, provided that the children are adopted young, and that there is more than one of them. To be in a family but not genetically related to it is presented, from the child’s point of view, as sometimes a positive relief. More than one respondent mentioned that she felt herself to be a genuine, independent individual from the moment she thought of herself as adopted. No one could expect her to be as musical as Aunt Fanny, or as bad-tempered as Uncle James. But the assumption which underlies the whole book is that to be in a family is better, infinitely better, than to be in care. Even at their most rebellious, the adopted children could reflect that they had escaped that fate.
The adoptive family is, of course, not ‘natural’, even if it may seem quite nice. In The Artificial Family, R. Snowden and G.D. Mitchell discuss another kind of family, that produced by Artificial Insemination by Donor, where a couple of whom the man is infertile decide to have a child. They also discuss, briefly, the case of single women or lesbian couples who have children by AID. They are against it. They think that, in the case of the heterosexual couple, the imbalance in the relation between parents and child is dangerous, especially if the marriage breaks up. Above all they are deeply opposed to the deception which at present marks the practice of AID. This may arise partly because, in law, an AID child is illegitimate, so, understandably, most people conceal the child’s AID origin when filling in the registration of birth. But I suspect that even if the law is changed many people will still pretend that their child was born in the normal way, largely as a matter of politeness. It is still generally thought offensive to a man to announce that he is infertile, and, though it would be impossible to collect evidence on this point, I imagine that many men are willing for their wives to have AID only if nobody knows about it. In this way, deception is built into the life of the AID family, and one may hold that this is an a priori wrong to a child. In this and other cases, such as surrogate motherhood, it seems appropriate to ask how far we are prepared to go to satisfy a woman’s wish for a child. Is the raising of a family a value so supreme that all other considerations – even perhaps the good of the child – must be subordinate to it? This is a difficult question. At least it seems that artificiality alone is not a reason for denying people the right to start a family, if they so wish. Adoption may work well, but has almost died out at the present time, through lack of spare babies.
What conclusions are we to draw? Most discussions of the family are centred on the relation between the parents, or between them and their young children. But the relation between siblings, emphasised in the Victorian family, seems equally important, and indeed to afford a far greater justification for the existence of the family than any of the other relationships involved. There is no substitute for this relationship. Moreover, one aspect of the family hardly touched on in these books is becoming increasingly important: the care of the aged. There is no doubt that it is just as damaging for the old to live in a Home or a hospital as it is for the very young. The burdens of keeping the old at home may be mitigated by the existence of more children than one. More optimistically, an aged parent may postpone the day of becoming a nuisance if she has numbers of children and grandchildren to whom she can be of use. The most important reform of the family is, I believe, a change in the way we think of old age. With new patterns of employment and unemployment, it should not be assumed that any one member of the family will be free at any particular time. The mother or grandmother is as likely to be working as the husband or grandfather. As far as is compatible with mobility, all members of a family should be prepared to support each other in needed ways. Work outside and inside the home may become more closely related, roles more interchangeable. This includes the role of the old. Feminists never seem to grow old, or at least not to foresee the day when they do so. I do not believe that many of them will, by then, still be living in their alternative households. I hope for their sakes that they will be back in the bosom of their families. I believe that optimism about this possibility does not commit us all to Thatcherism. There are values other than Victorian which keep the family in being.
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