16 January 2009

Is the institution of the family possible today? (By Richard)

Is the institution of the family possible today?

By Richard

Before we make an attempt to answer this question, we must first define what family means.

We are not going to dwell on different scientific definitions of a family seen from the point of view of various disciplines. But we must ask ourselves what we mean by a family. Do we have in mind a nuclear family (two parents and their child / children) or an extended family including the host of relatives from cousins, uncles to in-laws? And the children could be biological or adopted. There are also many combinations of these patterns. Instead of parents, there could be a one-parent family or the guardians could be in charge of the child(ren).

Checking the meaning of the family in seven European languages, all of them are at one, which we stated above. One interesting thing is that the meaning of the word familia in Russian has passed onto the family surname and a new word "sem'yá" appeared. It is curious because the word "sem'" means the enigmatic number "seven" and the meaning of "ya" is "I". We haven't checked if they are pure coincidences. In Polish rodzina comes from ród which means lineage, kin, stock, estirpe / parentesco (ES/PT). Russian preserved the word "rod" in the same sense but "rodina" evolved to mean "fatherland" much more emotionally charged than the English word suggests, so it is better better to use "patria" in ES or pátria in PT to preserve its real meaning.

In Spanish or Portuguese tradition nobody really ads "extended" when they speak about their families so to dispel any doubts one should not understand it as a nuclear family.

In Polish or Russian tradition either a ground-mother or a ground -father is usually included in the nuclear family (and nuclear is implied without being mentioned) if they belong to the same household. I said "either…or", because if they both are still alive, they do not belong to the same household, but have their own unless we think of rich families having big houses / flats.

In Banto and other African tribal tradition, the dead family ancestors make part of the present family. It does sound strange to us but this is what it is considered as normal in those cultures.

As we see, there is a big variety of our understanding of the term "famil"y depending on the respective culture. If we limit our observations to the European tradition only, the word familia comes from Latin, but a few people know that originally the word implied all the domestic animals the people had, because they lived under the same roof. Although the separation between animals and people took place, the meaning of the word was transferred to people only. There must be something to it, because even nowadays some people jocularly add their pets as the members of their nuclear family.

An extraordinary change is noticeable in all definitions in the languages I checked. In neither of them a condition of the parent's being married is not stated. It is not a laughing matter if we remember the fact that a child born out-of-wedlock was not considered as a member of the family. It was scorned upon and in the word "bastard" in English still carries a heavy weight of a derogatory meaning and it is an insulting word.

Obviously, there are exceptions that only prove the rule. Everyone knows Leonardo da Vinci who even though had a very nasty childhood and adolescence, became known as the world's best artist. The Portuguese are still proud of their King D. João I, who was out-of-wedlock, but the lowest stratum of the population, contrary to the nobles, proclaimed him the first king of the new Avis dynasty at the end of the 14th century and saved the country from the Spanish invasion.

Having defined a family, and as we live here in Spain and most people coming to these encounters are Spaniards, we consider it is incumbent on us to understand the word family as it is understood in Spanish, i.e. an extended family.

First of all we think that everybody agrees (even those who feel they have very rich and rewarding family lives) that we witness a huge family crisis in the Western world..

Roughly speaking, we are of the opinion that in most European counties (especially in Northern Europe and Germany) the family in the Spanish sense is dead, meaning it does not convey the same feelings as it does in Spain even in big cities. In Eastern Europe if we think of big cities (there's still a big difference between big towns and villages), the family is dying out (we insist: the extended family). In the provinces family bonds are getting weaker and weaker.

The tendency is not very inspiring. A good example is Sweden where almost 50% of the population live on their own. And almost 60% of the inhabitants of Stockholm live alone. The Swedes say: Bra karl reder sig själv (A good fellow deals with everything by himself) or Ensam är stark (Alone means being strong). Aren't we following the same trend? The word familj although still means the same (but only in its nuclear sense), the emotional connotations are far from being the Spanish ones. The family bonds are much looser.

In the UK only some 25% of the population live in a traditional nuclear family sense: two parents and two kids.

Spain and Portugal have undergone profound social changes in the last 30 years. And we must see the problem in a wider context, because the family problem is not suspended in a vacuum. We must not separate it from human matters which are dictated whether we want it or not, by economy. Business wants more profits. Nothing other matters. Jobs are scarcer and not secure. People in general work longer hours. The steep rising in housing prices does not invite much to pursuing family orientation. Women have also joined the rat race, chasing their careers. There is no time for family life. No wonder that some 30 years ago the expression "quality time" refers to the time spent with the family.

The other day I read that according to today's prices, raising a child in Spain till they become a grown-up person costs 100,000 euros. Considering very low salaries and lack of substantial support from the State, people prefer having pets instead.

We are on the slippery slope. Some even express fears that this crisis is a threat to the Western civilization. We are not able to regenerate the population that is getting older (specialists in the matter say that in order to do that statistically every woman should give birth to 2 children). A human life prolongation, according to some estimates, gives rise to an army of the elderly that new generations will have to support. In 30 years' time 3 people will have to work to maintain one pensioner (in Switzerland or Germany, there will have to be 2 working people for one pensioner). So the future looks really bleak.

We don't think that the picture is painted so black, because as in nature homeostasis reigns, we don't consider that the human race is dying out. The number of us is still on an increase. But one thing seems certain: a traditional form of a family is dying out and it must find its way to adapt itself to the changing world. But this is nothing new. A patriarchal family type is gone. A woman from a sexual object assumed the role of a sexual subject and is not relegated to the role of a mother any more. A dethroned man must find his place in the new situation. The problem being that a woman has already paid a very high price for her independence, because as I argued in one of my previous essays, she is not biologically prepared to face on her own the difficulties of living in the world constructed to the man's convenience. So the rules of the game are masculine. To change all that will take many generations. Nobody is so patient to wait for such a long time. Life must continue. So I presume a man and a woman will have to, sooner or later, come to terms with the new situation. Many of us have already done it. But it is not enough. A new arrangement must be found. A sort of compromise must be reached because as Castells and Sabirats say "ni contigo ni sin ti" talking about the human relations.

In order that this new form of living might be found, we should be more understanding towards the opposite gender. But first we must learn those differences between genders and respect them and not rely only on our gender instincts. Only through knowledge and putting it into practice can we surpass the difficulties and be back on track again whatever the new temptations or challenges the world offers us.

If this arrangement is not maintained, a form of a family will be a child surrounded by some grown-ups, not necessarily parents, but one parent and the parent's friends or acquaintances. Will it be healthier for the child? Who knows? Its environment will be richer, but it must be also "more stable" and this is the principle question of the proper development of future generations.

We have been talking only about heterosexual families so far. Adding gay and lesbian families, we will complicate the matter even further. A few days ago I attended a conference at Caixa Forum given by Jeffrey Weeks, a renowned Irish figure working in England, author of several books on gender matters. Obviously we should not forget about homosexual families. They also make part of society.

We are not living in easy times. The technological acceleration has been bringing about far-reaching consequences, many of which we were unable to fathom. And more consequences are still to come. The main cell of society - the family - has been affected tremendously.

Is the institution of the family possible today? It is possible and it still exists, but the form of it is in the process of a profound change. The strength of the old form that was so widely popular 30 years ago is on the wane. Nobody knows the future but if the human race is to survive, the family crisis must not be downplayed.


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