The dad-free family: the new normal?

Rosamund Cuckston

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A new sculpture by Turner Prize-winner Gillian Wearing called A Real Birmingham Family was unveiled on 30 October in Centenary Square in Birmingham. A competition had been run to find the ‘real Birmingham family’ to sit for the sculpture. The winners were the Jones family – comprised of two sisters, and their respective sons, who all live together in one household. The final decision was made by a specially selected committee, including representatives from Birmingham City Council and Wearing herself.

Having already undertaken a similar project in Trentino, Italy, in 2008, Wearing says she is interested in challenging the notion of what constitutes a family. In this project, she encouraged groups of friends, or even single people, to apply to be considered. Echoing Wearing’s view, the Jones family said they believe a family consists of an ‘indestructible bond’, and that it doesn’t matter if this comes in a traditional or non-traditional form.

Wearing, reflecting on the committee’s decision, said: ‘Everyone chose for their own reasons. There was no great discussion about all the families. We went around the table and everyone had the same idea. Some things you can’t explain.’ But one has to wonder: if the Jones family was such a radical, conformity-busting choice, why was there such agreement on the committee? What was it about the Jones family that made them so unanimously appealing?

The idea of the traditional, nuclear family has come under attack in recent years. Today, it is painted as a cover for oppression – of both women and children. The increasing intervention of the state, as well as parenting ‘experts’, into the realm of family life attests to this. Mothers have largely been inculcated into this new child-protection industry. The central role of mothers in society is still championed, even as their authority is undermined by the intervention of health professionals and school managers. However, there is a very different attitude from officialdom towards fathers.

Few child-protection campaigns are aimed at fathers. More often, child-protection campaigns paint the father as suspect – a potential abuser of both mother and child. Meanwhile, the fact that men still take far less time off of work after the birth of their children than women, means that dads are simply a less attractive target for government busybodies hell-bent on using parenting to weed out all manner of social problems. As officialdom has crept into the family home, dads have been painted as either suspect or surplus to requirements.

Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that Wearing and a group of local-government bods selected the Jones family. While, according to the 2011 census, nuclear families still make up the majority of UK households, the figure of the father is no longer seen as particularly important – to the family, or to society. Perhaps the dad-free family is the new normal.

Rosamund Cuckston helps organise and run the Birmingham Salon.

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