The changing family

It is sometimes said that raising children in the industrialized world is more difficult now than it ever has been. The family is often a small, relatively anonymous unit in an impersonal urban setting. No longer, in the main, attached to the extended family or kinship group, parents lack the support, child minding and advice available from ‘elders’ in more traditional cultures. The modern family is thrown on its own resources, sometimes with the extra demands of an elderly dependent relative. Other changes cited as making family life increasingly hard include the growing number of working wives, the trend towards sexual equality, more sexual freedom, and the loss of parental control over children’s behaviour and decisions.

However, in many ways these changes have also had positive results. The extended family, for which we may sometimes nostalgically yearn, imposes its own constraints and demands on any young couple or family. Sexual equality and working wives can benefit family relationships by bringing about a more equal distribution of roles, interests and responsibilities. The loosening of autocratic parental control over their offspring often leads to a more intimate friendship between the generations. Moreover, advice and discussion about the problems of parenting are probably more widely available today than ever before, through advice centres and self-help groups, radio and television programmes, books and magazines.

Male and female roles

Family roles are less strictly defined today than they once were. About 50 per cent of married women work outside the home, many returning to paid work once their children are of school age. Increasing numbers of men – whether through enforced unemployment or because they want to spend more time with their children – now share the responsibilities and rewards of childcare and housework. Many will regard this as an improvement in the lot of women, who have traditionally been left to cope with the drudgery of the home while their husbands for the most part enjoyed the comparative variety and fellowship of work in the outside world, often deserting their wives for their leisure pursuits.

Some may regret this transformation of roles, whereas others will say it has not gone far enough. The idea that a child whose mother is not with him at all times during his growing years will suffer ‘maternal deprivation’ is now seen as a half-truth at best: what is beyond dispute is that children need adult commitment, total confidence in the love they receive, and plenty of authoritative feedback about their behaviour and development. The father is just as able as the mother to fulfil most of the needs of the growing child, without any form of ‘deprivation’ occurring; the precise allocation of duties is for each couple to decide. Although more and more couples decide to share responsibilities for wage earning and domestic chores, many women still fulfil themselves almost completely as housewives. It is important that in families where this occurs the mother is given the full respect that her role demands, and recognition of her invaluable contribution.

In the past, men were perhaps too prone to disparage the work involved in ‘keeping house’ although doing their best to avoid helping with it, yet no one could argue that it represents an easy life. Women whose family responsibilities prevent them from working away from home are statistically more prone to stress and depression than ‘career’ women, as well as more so than their working husbands.

The single parent

Some women, and more rarely some men, choose to raise children on their own, constituting a one-parent family. Single parenting may be the result of enforced separation or divorce. In all, one in seven households in Western countries is run by a single parent. Single parents and their children may be happier than when both parents were together, but there are additional problems. Isolation is likely, because the adult has less freedom to leave the home unless a child minder is found. Financial difficulties are also possible as work may be hard to find, again with the problems of child care when the parent is at work. However, most industrialized countries have active self-help groups, usually started and organized by single parents. Sharing burdens with and helping out another family in the same situation often works very well. Jobs with live-in accomodation can also be valuable, although they are usually difficult to find.