But have things really changed so dramatically? Despite the changing face of the family, it is still the way in which most people live. The family remains an institution that plays a key role in the way society is organised and controlled, and which adapts, not to the whims of individuals, but to the conflicting priorities placed upon it by the world at large. In fact, the major shift in modern Western society has been not in the family itself, but in the culture surrounding it. While it is accepted that the family does, and should, play a central role in nurturing individuals and raising children, there is a growing ambivalence about people’s capacity to succeed at this task.
In policy circles, ‘diversity’, ‘understanding’ and ‘supporting’ are the buzzwords for discussions about the family, as though it is no longer possible to expect that, left to their own devices, families will be able to sustain themselves. In corporate and media circles, concerns about ‘juggling’ the conflicting priorities of the ‘work-life balance’ lead to versatile dilemma commentary on the business and parenting pages. In the book world, the ‘mommy wars’ pitches stay-home moms defensively fighting the domestic corner against guilt-tripped career mothers who want to feel better about their ambitions and their kids and less bad about themselves.
This cultural ambivalence about the family is highly problematic. There is no sense, as there was in the recent past, that the family as an institution should be questioned, with a view to finding more rational and liberating ways for people to organise their relationships and raise their children. While still-valid questions about the role of the family have been written off the political agenda, the relationships within families - between parents and each other, and between parents and children - are subject to an increasing amount of concern and intrusion.
From state legislation instructing people how to raise their children to corporate attempts to correct their employees’ work-life balance to books on the pitfalls of being a stay-home/working mother, the message to the modern family is one that emphasises its vulnerability and its need for external support. Not practical, helpful, old-school support such as childcare and domestic services, but alleged emotional support with the existential pressures of everyday family life.
The notion that people should be encouraged to ‘juggle’ the conflicting demands of work and family life under the concerned eye of an increasingly interventionist state means that family politics has ended up in the worst of all worlds. The element of life in the nuclear family that is domestic drudgery and social isolation continues unquestioned, while the privacy and autonomy that lies at the heart of the family is continually invaded and undermined. In order to break the cycle of insecurity and intervention that this process creates, we need to reclaim the debate about the politics of the family, and try to separate the family’s role as a social institution from what we find precious about family life.
The origin of the family
‘You know, there is no such thing as society’, proclaimed former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987. ‘There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ This notorious matter-of-fact quote contained a wealth of meaning, about the centrality of the family to the operation of capitalism and the problem of the family as a bulwark against social change.
So far as Thatcher was concerned, the world turned upon the work of individuals, and the role played by their families in both sustaining these individuals and dampening their desire for risk-taking and rebellion. In descriptive terms, at that moment in time she was largely right. In political terms, the quote was a bleak illustration of the failure of progressive politics in the late twentieth century, and the uneasy triumph of the market.
Ever since Frederick Engels famously exposed ‘The origin of the family, private property and the state’ in the late nineteenth century, it has been possible to understand the nuclear family as something that is not natural, God-given or chosen, but a product of particular historical circumstances (2). Engels’ seminal text traced the conditions that gave rise to different forms of family life and state structure in different societies. He discussed, for example, how different types of marriage ‘corresponded broadly to the three principal stages of human development: for the period of savagery, group marriage; for barbarism, pairing marriage; for civilisation, monogamy’.
Civilisation is ‘the stage of development in society at which the division of labour, the exchange between individuals arising from it, and the commodity production which combines them both come to their full growth and revolutionise the whole of previous society’. It marks a major shift in the relationship between man and nature, allowing humanity to transcend the limitations imposed by the biological division of labour common to previous societies. The form taken by the family, at this juncture, is not simply a continuation of past living arrangements according to natural laws, but a social and economic institution that plays a key role in the maintenance and reproduction of civilised, capitalist society.
The family is the basis for the reproduction of the working class. It provides a space in which the wage-earner can be nourished and cared for, given some respite from the physical demands and the emotional void of the workplace, and in which he will have and raise children. The creation of a private sphere of life, outside of the direct rule of the state and the market, gives the wage-earner a necessary sense of autonomy and control, along with a myriad of private responsibilities and emotional concerns that bolster his commitment to work and his desire for stability.
Engels’ explanation of the origin of the family was deeply controversial, as it flew in the face of deep-rooted beliefs in the natural, and moreover desirable, character of monogamy and the nuclear family. His critique established that the role played by the family under capitalism was the central cause of women’s oppression, and as such provided a major barrier to human freedom and social progress. Most importantly, Engels prepared the terrain for a century-long battle over the politics of the family, and the recognition that no aspect of social life should be taken for granted, however dearly we may hold it. It is in this context that we should look at the apparently major and complicated changes that the family today has undergone.
The changing face of the family
Watch daytime TV. Visit a provincial shopping centre on a Saturday. Buy a house, a car, a holiday, and there is no doubt that the nuclear family still exists. In private households all over the UK, parents are raising their children, cooking the dinner, doing the washing and working to pay the bills.
On paper, the family today certainly looks different, even as compared with 30 years ago. The latest edition of Social Trends, produced by the UK Office for National Statistics, presents some startling figures (3). In the UK in 2002, almost 41 per cent of all children were born outside marriage. The proportion of UK households comprising a couple with dependent children fell from around a third in 1971 to just over one-fifth in spring 2003. Over the same period, the proportion of lone-parent households with dependent children almost doubled, now accounting for five per cent of households. The marriage rate continues to fall and there are about the same number of divorces as there are first marriages. Increasing numbers of women are choosing not to reproduce at all. Eleven per cent of women born in 1925 were still childless at age 35; this more than doubled to 25 per cent for women aged 35 born in 1965, and it is expected that this trend will continue.
But while these are important changes, none of them suggests that the family itself has transformed, merely that more people are opting out of family life. And when the figures are looked at another way, it is possible to argue that even the face of the family has not changed so much as it seems. Two-fifths of children are born outside marriage - but in 2002, nearly 64 per cent of all births outside marriage were jointly registered by parents living at the same address, more than twice the proportion in 1986. This suggests that these are stable monogamous relationships, if not married ones. While both the age of first childbirth and the proportion of women remaining childless are rising, the average number of children women think they will have is still around two per woman. The marriage rate is falling but there has been an increase in cohabitation: among non-married women aged under 60, the proportion cohabiting more than doubled from 13 per cent in 1986 to 28 per cent in 2001/02. For men it also more than doubled over the same period, from 12 per cent to 25 per cent.
One major change to the traditional family has of course been the increase in women working. The idea of the male breadwinner and the family wage seems outmoded, and it is now assumed that women will be something other than housewives. It is now normal to be a working mother, and improvements in daycare and employment policy have made working and raising children a real possibility. But daycare is still expensive, inflexible and patchily provided, and the statistics indicate that working motherhood is less common than it might be assumed. Among married or cohabiting women with a child under five, only 19 per cent work full time; rising to 41 per cent - well under half - by the time the youngest child is 16. For lone mothers, the figures are 10 per cent and 46 per cent respectively.
Far from ‘having it all’ - the career, the husband, the kids - it seems that working motherhood, for many women, means a part-time job, pin money and some activity outside the home. This is less about full engagement in the public sphere than about the kind of job ‘on the side’ that working-class women have for decades been forced to take to boost the family income.
A detailed analysis of this data would raise interesting insights and questions. But even this brief overview indicates that there has been no major transformation of the family that approaches the shift that Engels identified from barbarism to civilisation. What has changed is not the composition of the family, or the way in which families operate. They still raise their kids and do the housework in private, and in most cases it is still the woman who does the lion’s share of the domestic work. The key shift has been in the politics of the family.
The politics of the family
In today’s era of officially sanctioned family ‘diversity’ and commonly available medical intervention to prevent, stop and start a pregnancy, Engels’ contention that the family is not natural would scarcely raise an eyebrow. Nor, indeed, would the argument that the family is an economic unit that plays a useful role in capitalist society’s ability to maintain and reproduce itself. Over the past century, the ideologies of socialism and feminism succeeded, in different ways, in systematically exposing both the benefits the family brought to the ruling elite, and the problems created by this institution for the possibility of moving towards a progressive, free and equal society.
Books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) blew the lid off idealised notions of motherhood and domesticity, highlighting the narrow, stifling character of the private sphere, and its impact upon college-educated women who might otherwise be leaders and thinkers (4). The women’s movement demanded rights and resources to free women from the shackles that came, inevitably, with family life. Calls for abortion on demand and 24-hour childcare recognised that, so long as women were victims of their biology and the business of caring for a family was a privatised, domestic responsibility, there was little hope of true equality. Socialism, with its vision of a society based on equality and shared public goals, provided a powerful critique of the way in which the family was used to isolate people from each other, frighten them about change, and keep one half of the population from creative and meaningful work.
In questioning the necessary existence of the nuclear family in modern society, both socialism and feminism had a considerable impact. While a favourite right-wing complaint was that these political movements were destroying the family, for the most part they were picking up on a contradictory reality already offered by capitalist society. Capitalism operated on the basis of a highly skilled and increasingly mechanised division of labour, creating the conditions in which more and more things were produced at greater speed and with greater ease; yet domestic work remained highly privatised, labour-intensive and unremitting. Capitalism promised liberty and equality in the labour market, yet half the population were deemed undesirable candidates for work by virtue of their necessary role in the home, and were consequently trapped and dependent.
What gave these political critiques of the family their power, however, was that they rested upon an alternative social and economic vision of how society could be. Questioning the family to this extent was possible because of a belief that society as a whole could be, and should be, organised differently. Feminism’s limited vision of a sexually equal society, which assumed that the capitalist state could bring about change with political reforms and the provision of services, at least recognised that such an achievement would require a major shift in society’s priorities and the allocation of resources - though feminism’s focus on men and patriarchy obscured the cause of the problem, and it failed to account for why capitalism would adopt such a self-destructive course.
Socialism understood that to take society beyond its reliance upon the institution of the family would mean going beyond capitalism and creating a new economic system entirely. With the collapse of socialism, with its genuine vision of a social and economic alternative, the basis of any meaningful politics of the family disappeared, too.
But though the political right won the economic war, it lost the culture war. Thatcher tried to celebrate the triumph of the market by proclaiming that ‘there is no such thing as society’, and launching a number of crusades designed to bolster the traditional family and promote the virtues of individualism. Yet this strategy backfired. While capitalism was accepted as the only way of running society, a century of battles between left and right had shown elements of this society to be contradictory and undesirable.
It was one thing to accept that the nuclear family was it, that all visions of going beyond this institution were now defunct. It was another thing entirely to proclaim that the nuclear family was natural, perfect and unassailable, as the problems and limitations of the family had already been exposed. What this left was a society committed to the family, and highly dependent upon maintaining it, yet uneasy with the family and unable to promote it straightforwardly.
‘Family life is the foundation on which our communities, our society and our country are built.… They are as important now as they have ever been. But families are also under considerable stress.… There never was a golden age of the family. Family life has continually changed - and changed for good reasons as well as bad. But what families - all families - have a right to expect from government is support…. We are striving to deliver this. But families rightly expect more. They do not want to be lectured or hectored, least of all by politicians. But they do want clear advice to be available when they need it on everything from their children’s health to their own role as parents.’
The consultation document ‘Supporting Families’, published by the New Labour government in 1998, marked an uneasy shift in UK family policy (5). From Thatcher’s promotion of Victorian values to the fiasco of the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign promoted by her successor John Major in the early 1990s, it was clear that playing to the gallery on traditional family values was not going to work. The market may have won, bringing an end to any vision of a decent childcare policy, let alone thoughts of transcending the family as a social institution. But things had changed too much for the political right simply to rehash its traditional family values.
Back in 1977, the American theorist Christopher Lasch criticised those who assumed that the family’s ‘isolation’ from the public sphere makes it ‘impervious to outside influences’. ‘In reality, the modern world intrudes at every point and obliterates its privacy’, he wrote. ‘The sanctity of the home is a sham in a world dominated by giant corporations and by the apparatus of mass promotion.… Increasingly the same forces that have impoverished work and civic life invade the private realm and its last stranglehold, the family.’ (6)
Lasch understood that the dynamic between society and the family, and the basic contradiction this contained, meant that even 30 years ago it was impossible truly to see the family as a separate, private sphere untouched by market forces. However, the understanding that a certain amount of privacy and autonomy were necessary for family life to play its desired role was not a sham in the most fundamental sense: the relationship between the family and the state. Even while the domestic sphere was besieged by advertising and the ethos of consumption, the ruling elite retained a clear sense that the state meddled at its peril.
In the 1980s it was this relationship, between the family and the state, that began to change. In exposing the manifest problems within the family, socialism and feminism had left an important legacy, distorted by the fact that by now there was no political alternative to the family or the broader social conditions created by the market. The family was no longer taken for granted as a haven in a heartless world, but also seen as a site of oppression and abuse.
From the left, domestic violence and child abuse came to the fore as issues demanding greater state intervention; and not even the most staunch defender of traditional family values, when faced with calls to do more about these issues, could use the family’s need for privacy - summed up in the creaky old adage ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ - as a reason for leaving well alone. From the political right, a self-conscious attachment to the nuclear family and Victorian values did not stop attempts to use issues such as juvenile delinquency and so-called ‘problem families’ as an opportunity to wield its newly enhanced state power behind other people’s closed doors. The political right has preached the virtues of the family’s privacy and autonomy when it has suited its own ends; when it suited the elite to override that privacy and autonomy, it did not hesitate to do so.
By the time New Labour came to power in 1997, with its peculiar brand of social conservatism and moral pragmatism, the family was highly exposed. The political movements of the working class had disappeared, leaving society atomised, defenceless against and even positively disposed towards state intrusion in private affairs. High levels of political disengagement put pressure upon the new government to focus upon issues close to people’s hearts - their health, their children, and their relationships. The insecurity experienced by a political elite presiding over a fragmented, visionless society fuelled a dynamic towards finding new, more effective methods of social control. Family policy became one of the first sites of action.
The ‘Supporting Families’ consultation document was published after New Labour had been in government for only a year. The tone of then home secretary Jack Straw’s foreword, quoted above, indicates that this was a self-conscious attempt to shift the balance between the family and state. The theme of his foreword - effectively, ‘We like the family. But ...’ - is born out by the measures proposed by the document, from parenting classes to official pre-marital counselling. The message was clear: for too long, it has been assumed that families are best left alone to live their lives in private. Now the state should become more involved - through processes called supporting, helping and advising families - to encourage people to live their lives in the right way.
Under seven years of New Labour, this dynamic towards greater state involvement in everyday family life has intensified. The defensive language used by ‘Supporting Families’, of being careful not to be seen to criticise certain families or be ‘lecturing or hectoring’ parents, has gradually been discarded, while MPs debate the merits of a law banning parents from smacking their kids, government agencies plan a national database that will effectively put all children under state surveillance, and parents are routinely educated by the state in ‘parentcraft’ skills.
New Labour’s flagship policy Sure Start provides a useful snapshot of the way such policy works. Purportedly a scheme for improving childcare, the impact of Sure Start upon providing Britain with more affordable, high-quality daycare so that both parents can work full-time seems pretty negligible. Where its profile - and its interest - lies is in working alongside parents, gently coaching them in how best to bring up their children and keeping a close eye on things in case something should go wrong. So it advertises mis-punctuated ‘Drop-In’s’ for literacy classes that mum can bring baby to, and opportunities for ‘messy play’ (presumably because parents aren’t creative enough with their kids’ paint-sets at home). Few people object to Sure Start; presumably, because few people are clear what it is. It’s not the nanny state, it’s not a decent childcare infrastructure - but it certainly is about getting into the parts of family life that previous policy has not reached.
The thrust of New Labour’s family policy is simple. Parents should be responsible for raising children - there is no wider vision of any alternative way of doing things. But they should not be trusted to get on with it themselves. The privacy and autonomy historically associated with the family is seen as a problem, something to be limited and doled out as a reward for appropriate behaviour. This is not a sinister agenda, in the sense that it is motivated by a genuine fear that a society increasingly lacking in common values and ties that bind will leave individuals isolated and vulnerable, unable to cope adequately with conducting personal relationships and raising a new generation. The hope that families can be ‘supported’ and therefore strengthened by the state is genuine. However, the consequence of such intrusion can only be to weaken the family further.
The strength of the family as an institution derived from its existence within a private sphere of life. The privacy of the family gave it that sense of being a haven, a place to seek solace from the harsh rules and demands of the market and the state. The autonomy accorded to the family gave it its sense of responsibility - primarily, between partners and towards children. Once the family is opened up to the gaze and regulation of the state, to live as a ‘family’ is to subject oneself to more external pressures and sanctions. And when the autonomy of the family is challenged, particularly in relation to such areas as parenting, this limits the family’s all-important historical role as a site for the spontaneous reproduction of a new generation, responsible for ensuring its health, wellbeing and value system. When the government starts prescribing such basic matters as how much of a smack it is permissible to give in what circumstances, for example, it is hard to see what separates parental responsibility from simply parental blame.
The direction of current family policy is towards creating the worst of all worlds, for the ruling elite and for families themselves. There is no social vision about organising society in such a way as to abolish the drudgery of domestic work, and to create a more rational system of childcare. Yet while the work of the domestic sphere remains privatised, the intimacy of family relationships is opened up to full public view.
This has significant consequences for the future of the family. While it has not stopped people from living as families, it certainly has contributed to a situation in which increasing numbers of people are deciding to opt out, choosing their individual freedom over what are increasingly perceived as the burdensome pressures of life-partnership and parenthood. And for those who have chosen family life, it has helped to create a cycle of self-obsession and self-doubt.
The ‘mommy wars’: the new politics of the family
In The Mommy Myth: The Idealisation of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, US academics Susan J Douglas and Meredith W Michaels hark back fondly to a world where housewives demanded wages, working mothers demanded daycare centres with dry-cleaners attached, and everybody recognised that women had A Bad Lot (7). They wonder whatever happened to feminism, to socialism, to the notion that there must be other ways of treating women and raising children than the paltry choice between full-on privatised motherhood and the guilty work-family juggling on offer in society today.
Unfortunately, as Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent acerbic review in the New Yorker put it, Douglas and Michaels are somewhat muddled when it comes to explanations for why this might be the case:
‘At certain points, the authors seem to suggest that the “new momism” is a marketing phenomenon or a grab at ratings; at others, that it is a vast right-wing conspiracy. Like the landlord in a nineteenth-century melodrama, Ronald Reagan makes frequent appearances, cutting funds for daycare centres, running up the deficit, and muttering about how women in the labour force drive up the unemployment statistics. It’s assumed that federal policy and the conventions of celebrity journalism are somehow related, although in a more rigorous world this is precisely what would have had to be proved.’ (8)
Given the terrain of the debate occupied by Douglas and Michaels, it is little wonder that they are sloppy on explanation. The Mommy Myth is one of the recent books to come out of the ‘mommy wars’ currently being fought on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, this takes the form of a pitched battle between smug middle-class stay-home moms, loyally sacrificing themselves on the altar of child-rearing and fretting about their loss of personal identity and social capital, and ambitious middle-class career moms holding down a demanding job and a full burden of guilt. In the UK, it takes the more muted form of journalists writing confessional books about how strange and difficult motherhood really is, and pragmatic, convoluted debates about the problem of finding the right ‘work-life balance’. Insofar as there is any discussion outside of policy circles about the politics of the family, the mommy wars is it; and it represents just how confused this debate has become.
The mommy wars are phoney. It is not that career moms really blame stay-home moms for their guilt, or vice versa. Rather, these arguments highlight the cultural ambivalence that currently surrounds family life. Nobody now thinks, as they did in Betty Friedan’s day, that family life is all there is. From cradle to college, women are taught about the importance of preserving individual identity and the pitfalls of staying home with the kids. But nor is there any sense, any more, that women can ‘have it all’ - the career, the kids, the lifestyle. When it comes to the tension between the public world of work and the private world of the family, the word of the decade is ‘juggling’.
At a time when neither the public world not the private sphere can be expected to yield satisfaction, individuals are expected to juggle the demands of both. The official expectation is that this will lead to well-rounded individuals who have a connection with society both through the world of work and their role as a family. In reality, it leads to an intense sense of individual frustration.
The dilemma of the ‘mommy wars’ is summed up by US academic Sharon Hays in her powerful 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (9). Through in-depth interviews with stay-home and working mothers across social classes, Hays argues that the desirability, and actuality, of women’s increased participation in the labour market has been complemented by the aggressive promotion of a philosophy of ‘intensive mothering’, which preaches the need for the parent - whatever their working situation - to hold the real and supposed needs of the child paramount.
The success of this philosophy is what has allowed the family to survive, even in the face of the pressures placed upon it by women leaving the home and playing a significant role in the public world. By continually emphasising the need to put the child first - even if this involves paying for the best-quality daycare and packing in the quality time at home - parents’ (and particularly, mothers’) commitment to their private responsibilities is ensured, even when it is made clear to them that these private responsibilities are not the only ones they should have.
The child-centred focus encapsulated by the philosophy of intensive mothering is the way in which today’s society has sought to manage the contradiction between social life and family life. As traditional definitions of, and justifications for, the family have become emptied of meaning, the locus of family life has become what is presumed to be best for the child. On the face of things, the more diverse character of family form and the emphasis upon the emotional bond between parent and child seems to indicate a certain progress: the wife is no longer trapped and dependent, the working mother is no longer stigmatised. In reality, however, a high price has been paid.
The impact of the preoccupation with child-centredness, and the barrage of official advice and expertise that now surrounds all matters to do with pregnancy and parenting, has been described by Frank Furedi as the ‘emptying-out’ of adult identity (10). No longer confident about their capacity to manage family life as autonomous, private individuals, and forced to eschew the choice between work and family in favour of a self-conscious juggling between the two worlds, today’s adults are continually unsure about the identity they hold and the role they should be playing.
The notion of ‘juggling’ encapsulates the limits and low expectations that surround ideas about work and family life today. The flipside of the idea that women could ‘have it all’ is the notion that they should juggle different areas of their life in the self-conscious awareness that none of it is enough, sensitive to the culturally prominent concern that they may not be good enough at any of it. The mommy wars, with its loop of guilt about whether it is enough to love one’s kids, have a job, create a nice house and hold down platonic friendships, and whether it is possible to do all of these things to one’s satisfaction, is the clearest example of this identity crisis.
‘Choosing between work and home is, in the end, a problem only for those who have a choice’, concludes Elizabeth Kolbert in her review of the mommy wars. ‘In this sense, it is, like so many “problems” of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems.’ (11)
Well, yes and no. For women, the greater element of choice about whether and when to have children, and whether and how to work while raising the children, is experienced as liberating when compared to the situation faced by previous generations. But for all the apparent choices people have now about how to organise their personal family situation, the real, political choice, to do with how society could best organise its relationship with the family as a social and economic institution, is conspicuously absent. There are individual men and women, there are families, and there is the therapeutic state. Is this the best we can hope for?
Jennie Bristow is editor of Abortion Review and author of Standing Up To Supernanny and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)