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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Director's report

Parents at the core of family life
Don Edgar

Abstract

This article begins by discussing definitions of family and looks critically at the term 'family of choice' which does not limit our understanding of family to blood or kin relationships. The author points out that this understanding of family may be adequate to describe modern adult relationships, but not the family relationships of children. The families of children are predetermined, not chosen. The author then looks at how parenthood has changed and argues that the meaning of parenthood had been transformed with the reconstruction of marital relationships. The article ends with a discussion of a number of child and parent focussed themes.

International Year of the Family 1994 will inevitably raise the question of definition: What is meant by 'the family '? However, the United Nations itself has stressed the religious and cultural diversity of family forms and family values, and urges that we not get bogged down in definitional debate.

As Director of this Institute for the past 14 years, I have been at pains to emphasise that 'every individual has a family', that it is not just Mum, Dad and a few kids, that 'the family does not stop at the front door', that all families change over the life course, and that people define for themselves who is and is not part of their family. Children often include pets and unrelated adults when describing 'My Family'.

But at the recent NSW Premier's Forum on Ageing I was puzzled by the unblinking acceptance of the term 'family of choice'. We were told that family is no longer limited by blood or kin relationships. Family is what we choose it to be, how we define it ourselves. And this can include friends living together, unrelated couples, a single person with a budgie, or a set of people not living together at all but who regard one another as family.

Now language is power, and we know that if people define something as real, then it is real, at least in its consequences. So there is no doubt any of the above could be treated as valid family forms.

But the theme of this issue of Family Matters - parents and parenting - gave me pause to question. Surely family is about blood and kin relationships, not about self- defined friendships that come and go? A couple of any sort may live together as family, sharing mutual care and responsibilities. They may even regard themselves as married, with all that implies. But without offspring or adopted children, 'the ties that bind' cease with the end of that relationship and 'the family' has no continuity through time.

True it is that many people live singly, marry later, have fewer or no children at all. True that aged care will soon be up there with child care as an economic and social policy issue. True that every individual has a family, but that in itself implies the links through parents to a wider family network, not just a family of choice. Without children, there is no family continuity or family-based cultural transmission. There is no future. Without children we can hardly use the concept of family in any meaningful way, certainly not in a policy sense. If it includes everything, anything goes.

There is thus a problem or two with the notion of 'family of choice'. It may be adequate to describe modern adult relationships - we choose our partners, we choose whether or not (and when) to have children, we decide to separate, re- partner, form new families as we will. But children do not. Their family is not chosen, it is predetermined for them. It is defined in essence by who is called their 'parents' and they are usually inescapable. These groupings of children and adults have reciprocal family rights and obligations, not just socially constructed and imposed but inherent in the very relationship. 'Home is where, if you've got nowhere else to go, they have to take you in.' There is an emotional and moral attachment involved in such primary relationships that sets them apart from more rational, instrumental systems.

We obviously have to agree that the parent-child relationship is only one subset of the complex web of family relationships. But it is central and has ramifications through the life course.

The first baby born transforms the couple dyad to a father/mother dyad, and creates parents as a new entity of joint responsibility. The way in which different cultures separate children from fathers, even mothers in some cases, and variations in the place of children in the community has a marked impact on what parenting a child receives and the ways in which the culture is transmitted to the child.

The division of labour focused around caring for children may vary widely, but it always involves providing for both the physical and socio-emotional needs of those too young to fend for themselves. Males in our society have conventionally provided for the family by earning an income. The mother's contribution to making ends meet and to the wider economy through her unpaid work has tended to be swamped, ignored or downplayed by the modern mania for bonding and nurturing, as much as by the gender bias of conventional economics.

Therein lies perhaps the most profound change in family life over recent decades. The meaning of parenthood is being transformed in concert with the reconstruction of marital relationships.

Not only are today's men and women seeking more equal, more satisfying partnerships in marriage, they are also wanting shared parenting. This results from a mix of both structural change and value shift, the two inevitably being melted into new compounds within the crucible of everyday family life.

Structural change involves prolonged education, delayed marriage and childbearing, a new labour market that makes one income not enough, multiple part- time jobs within one family more likely. Out of that, and from the widening of choice for women, emerges more equal control, less acceptance of (and less practicality in) traditional family management, a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of balance involved in being the sole breadwinner or the sole homemaker.

What is often missed in media comment on family life is that men are changing too. It is not just female liberation but a shift in the male psyche as well that transforms family life. This should be no surprise, since men are now made much more responsible in relation to contraception, in the decision to have children, in meeting their partners' career aspirations and in caring for their children once they are born. Men are wanting to be parents, not just money- earners.

Over 80 per cent of ex-nuptial births now have acknowledged paternity. The majority of Australian couples now have shared bank accounts. The ratio of male to female work (both paid work and home duties) is now 1:1, with men doubling their contribution to housework, women reducing it by 20 per cent. Men are now almost as likely as women to take sick leave for family-related reasons. We even see economics writers such as Tim Colebatch of The Age (12/10/93) taking up the cudgels on behalf of the 'new fatherhood' because the reality of sharing and caring is very different for men such as him from the feminist dogma that men haven't changed at all. The point is not that all men have changed. They haven't, and we have documented evidence of continuing inequalities of opportunity, task- sharing, providing for children after separation and divorce. The point is rather that lots of men have changed and this augurs well for the future. Certainly the Institute's research over the past decade has flagged a decreasing gap between men expressing the 'correct' values about equality in marriage and their actual behaviour. They may still be in paid work for longer hours, but more and more men are accepting a new regime, a regime centred around the dilemmas of parenting in an unresponsive society.

The Institute has been documenting for several years now the gradual ground shift in relation to that social response in the workplace. Child care, more flexible work practices, family-related leave, a more holistic approach to employee relations, are now emerging as 'best practice' in leading- edge companies. Enterprise agreements have tended to focus on wages and time arrangements, but some (such as the ANZ Bank's family leave provision struck in their October agreement) are facing the new realities of family life and the demands of parenting today.

The irony is that parenting is now taking on new dimensions. It is not just child care, pre-school or schooling that preoccupy parents. The launching stage of getting one's offspring off to their own adult life is now prolonged and problematic. The revolving door syndrome is replaced for many by the prospect of never leaving, of never enjoying the empty nest, of parenting mature adults under the same roof - a situation that requires a major change in style. As well, reciprocal exchange and support between adults and their ageing parents seems not to be weakening, with strong family ties extending into elder care as the newest form of work-family benefits being required. Even a single person without children is likely to have ageing parents, and men are less able to label elder care (of their own parents) than child care as a matter for women only.

So parenting and parent-offspring relationships extend throughout a longer life course than ever before, each stage demanding new actions, new attitudes, new patterns of sharing.

International Year of the Family has to face the dilemmas of modern parenthood head on. It is not easy being a parent when most other institutions are still structured round the assumption that every child has at least one full- time parent at home. Children need close attention and we need new institutional arrangements to ensure their full development. We would do well to address at least the following themes in relation to children, parents and family life.

Children are essentially conservative

They rely on stable arrangements to flourish. Those doing well in adolescence may have had multiple child care arrangements but they have been consistent, regular and reassuring. Kids like to read the same stories over and over, and they must always end in the same way. What degree of stability, regularity and reassurance are we providing them in society today?

Children need security, a sense of being safe

Fear of kidnap, strangers, violence is highly tuned. Fear that their parents may divorce is more real and children need reassurance either that everyday conflict is 'normal' and won't lead to family disruption, or that once separated they can still maintain a stable relationship with both parents.

Children need time together with parents and family

The TV set can fragment family life. Work demands steal time with parents. A child aged nine who is told to look after herself for three or more hours a day establishes a pattern which can't be retrieved at age 15 when parents suddenly think closer attention may be desirable. How can we reconstruct family time so that links become firmly entrenched?

Children need a set of values, beliefs

To feel part of something bigger than themselves is important for children. The ideologies of religion and politics may have their weaknesses, but they serve to embed people in a wider cause. How can we recapture that sense of being part of the civil society, where self-absorption is not the only ethic and where responsibility for others, a sense of being useful, of having a stake in what happens around us becomes the starting point for self-esteem?

Children need access to basic resources

It goes without saying that poverty is bad for children, that a decent home is central to their sense of wellbeing. How do we ensure equal access to health, housing, education, quality of life for all our children?

The community as a whole is the 'parent' for every child

Parenthood is a social act, not a private one, and parental rights derive from their responsibility, on behalf of the community, to raise children towards effective adulthood. In an age of privatisation, where the social consequences of parenting and 'investment' in children are delayed and not obvious to those without children, how do we re-engage that essential contract of mutual obligations between parents and the wider community?

Children need example and action

Family and parenthood is about the transmission of cultural values, the promotion of character and wellbeing in the next generation. If we deplete the earth's resources, set greed as an example, self-interest as the driving force of social action, what hope is there for future generations? The Americans may be rediscovering the need for 'character' in their children, but values are born out of example and action, not just teaching or preaching a set of ideals.

Australia has much going for it in finding solutions to such problems. We are well resourced, more politically and economically secure than most other countries, still willing to strive for a fair go for all. But we need to be very careful not to denigrate the role of parents and the importance of children to our quality of life now and in the future.

As I leave the Institute on 31 December 1993, I will take with me an abiding respect for the families of Australia and their incredible capacity to care, adapt, forge new patterns in the face of a political system that honours family life more in rhetoric than in practice. I shall continue to champion the cause of children, parents and family relationships from my new vantage point.

My sincere appreciation goes to all those who have assisted the Institute in its work, to the staff for their sterling efforts over the years, to the Board members and Ministers who have come and gone. I wish the new Director and the Institute well for a vigorous future in the cause of better public support for every family.