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The seven ages of family life: from shotgun weddings to silver splitters

No other institution can have had the last rites administered so often over the centuries and with such relish only to spring back to life, tweaked, transformed, reinvigorated; the death of the family postponed once more. The Greek gods were among the first to bloody the ties that bind. In The Oresteia, written by Aeschylus (458 BC), now adapted for the London stage at the Almeida, father kills daughter, mother kills father, son kills mother and the Furies of Greek mythology beset all those who murder their kin. Nobody wins. Add to that the themes of unnatural mother-son interest (the Oedipus complex) and father-daughter machinations (the Electra complex), and the message echoing through the ages – a favourite of Shakespeare, and fodder for every television soap – is all too clear; in the bosom of the family, no one is safe. And yet …

In spite of the toxic framework in which the family has traditionally been framed, and the continual flow of negative statistics about divorce and breakdown, the latest news for Britain is surprisingly positive. Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, drawing on an international study, reported that the UK is one of the happiest nations for family relationships, with more than 90% of respondents saying they were very happy or fairly happy with their family life, the fourth highest in the developed world. Given the dark tenor that colours kinship in popular culture and the family’s regular battering by critics from left, right and centre, how can that be?

Last year, there were 18.6 million families in the UK, including 12.5 million married couple families and two million lone-parent families (with the other parent possibly nonresident but not “absent”). Cohabiting couple families are showing the fastest growth – an increase of almost 30% in 10 years from 2004. Also growing fast are same-sex couple families and households containing two or more families. They now number 313,000 households, an increase of 56% in the decade to 2014 – a possible result of spiralling housing costs and high immigration. Add to the mix reproductive technology that allows, for instance, two gay men to have three children by as many women, and “re-blended” clans built on separation, divorce, remarriage and cohabitation, squeezed into a single family tree. The traditional nuclear family consisting of the stay-at-home mother and breadwinner father, welded in holy wedlock and raising the standard two offspring, now struggles to call itself “the norm”.

So here is a stab at the seven modifications of family life from which, in spite of predictions of destruction and demise, the institution has emerged battered but relatively resilient because it is wired for adaptation, increasingly democratic and anchored in the aim (if not always the delivery) of unconditional love. Chaotic and anarchic, continuing to muddle through, doing the best it can.

Past times: The DIY family

The family often lives and works in the same place; an extended network of support. Marriage is frequently a business affair, a union of power, property and families. Cohabitation and “illegitimacy” are common for centuries among the lower orders. In the 18th century, for instance, “besom” weddings see the woman and man jump a broom to get into their new home before witnesses. At a time when women have few rights, if the cohabitation fails, the woman keeps her property and income. One local rhyme runs: “The folk of Framlingham say that none but whores and blackguards marry/ honest folk take each other’s word for it.” In Victorian times, the habits of the “upstairs” family are seen as essential to socialise children, keep men to heel (at least in theory) and maintain standards.

Fifties: Happy ever after

Increasing affluence in the postwar years shores up the myth that the twentysomething bride and groom – him out to work, her indoors – is how it has always been. Marriage – even a shotgun wedding precipitated by the scandal of sex before matrimony – has to last for life. Family life is stable, conformist, but for many that stability comes at a price. Divorce carries a stigma. In 1958, there are only 22,654 divorces in England and Wales (compared with 13 divorces an hour in England and Wales in 2012). The family is considered intensely private and highly respectable. The expectation is that the only four words a young woman wants to hear are “Will you marry me?” As many subsequently discover, marrying is the easy part, living together afterwards the challenge.

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Sixties: Decadence and dissent

In the 1960s, individualism, feminism and “free love” trigger the rage of the right. The family as the moral mirror of society is allegedly shattered. On the left, white middle-class feminists such as Betty Friedan and Ann Oakley, decry the golden cage of domesticity and “the problem that had no name” (housework, motherhood and hubby, yet still that empty feeling inside, and the question, “Is that all there is?” ). Hippy notions of communal family living interest some and horrify others. Women’s Liberation supposedly means that a man doesn’t have to propose before he gets his leg over.

Seventies: The me decade

The 1969 Divorce Reform Act comes into law in 1971. Neither partner has to prove fault. The divorce rate shoots up from 45,794 in England and Wales in 1968 to 143,667 in 1978 – divorce is overwhelmingly initiated by women. The lone-parent family is born – and battle begins. Is it structure that matters for children in the shape of traditional marriage – or commitment and stability delivered without the nuptials? Research begins to indicate that if two parents keep their animosity under control and stay together, children are OK. Two parents openly at war whether together or apart causes grief. The right asks “Who Killed the Family?” It wants divorce to be made harder, and tax relief for husbands and wives. It still does today. In 1971, feminist Shulamith Firestone advocates artificial wombs for making babies. The family’s dark side is revealed – domestic violence, child sexual abuse.

Eighties: Children first (or not)

Legislation tries to put the child first in family life. Choice, personal freedom, women becoming economically independent earning a wage, all mean the family has to negotiate new terms of engagement. No couples in the UK need marriage for protection, or are obliged to stay together for fear of what the neighbours might say. A family brokers its own contract. Two wage-earners with one carrying all the domestic burden can result in stormy times. Cohabitants might drift into family life or consciously choose it, but many find it more difficult to navigate these choppy waters than husbands and wives.

Nineties: The family inside out

Private family life becomes a little more public as a national childcare strategy is launched; working mothers harming their babies by leaving them in nursery care become an issue. So too do the feckless dad, gay parents, the frailty of step-families – and every trend and statistic that fails to resuscitate the housewife and breadwinner. The royals divorce – Andrew and Fergie, Charles and Diana, Anne and Mark. It becomes OK to be a little bit selfish. “Good enough parents have to look after themselves to look after others. You can’t pour water from an empty jug,” says one expert.

Noughties: Confetti RIP

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Marriage rates continue to plunge, so divorce drops too. “Parenting” is professionalised, with courses and punishments for those who fail to make the grade. Gay couples enter civil partnerships. Some grown-up children of sperm donors ask: why me? Others couldn’t care less. Wombs to rent throw up ethical dilemmas with greater frequency – whose baby is it? The historian Jeffrey Weeks wrote in the 90s about how Aids introduced a “remoralisation” for some gay men. Promiscuity as a conscious rejection of the values of the nuclear family is increasingly replaced by “a responsibility for the self that requires a responsibility for others.” Families come in all shapes and sizes and include circles of friends. Some parents regress, behave like kids and appear on reality TV. One of the fastest growing group of divorcees is the “silver splitters”, those over 60 going their separate ways. Grandparents in their hundreds of thousands take on full-time care of grandchildren. Adult children move back home – or never leave. And while children and the very oldest are sometimes the casualties, lessons are being learned. The better educated, the older a person is before they settle down and have children, the stronger the chances are of achieving what most of us say we seek – a family we love.

The family in quotes

Compiled by Rebecca Ratcliffe

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.”
This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin

“Tennis is just a game, family is forever.”
Serena Williams

“Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”
Mae West

“What kind of person can I be, where his own mother wants him dead?”
Tony Soprano, The Sopranos

“Maybe there is no actual place called hell. Maybe hell is just having to listen to our grandparents breathe through their noses when they’re eating sandwiches.”
Jim Carrey

“Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.”
Michael J. Fox

“The liberation of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents is one of the most necessary, though one of the most painful, results brought about by the course of his development.”
Sigmund Freud, Der Familienroman der Neurotiker, 1909

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”She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2

“One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn.
Mom loves the both of them
You see, it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to mom
Blood’s thicker than the mud”
Family Affair, Sly and the Family Stone


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