I haven’t seen my Mum and Dad for close on 12 months, and today is the day. In a little over 4 hours, we’ll meet them at the airport and there will be warm embraces, opening the opportunity to share life face to face for a week. I’ve been married for close on 21 years and for the majority of that time we have lived interstate from both sets of our parents. I sometimes wonder what the relationship would be like with my parents if we had lived closer together. Would we have shared Sunday lunches, regular family outings, done more life together, or would we have been distant emotionally, like we are geographically.
Don’t get me wrong I and we as a family generally have a good relationship with my parents. There are issues we see quite differently and aspects of each others’ lives that we don’t fully understand, but on the whole things are positive. We are certainly products of our respective generations. The baby boomers tending to work for the security that their parents never had, or at least perceived they didn’t due to war and the Great Depression. For us in the Gen X camp we experience the legacy of individualism and a breakdown of community including extended family. In the midst of that whilst there still is a strong urge towards individual acquisition, aging as a generation there is an increasing search for the meaning of our existence. Our children in turn are tending to be more conscious of the environment, politics and broadly speaking the betterment of the world.
In all of this what is family and what part does it play in our continuing development as people? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the 2012-13 statistical year, Australia consisted of 8.9 million households, 74% of these were family households. That’s 20.1 million people living in famiies! A family household is described as couples living in registered marriages, de facto, step and blended, single parent and parents with visiting arrangements. Families with children of any age make up 58% of family households (3.9million), 74% of those have dependant children, 2.8 million with at least one child aged 0-17 years. 14% of families were single parent families (http://goo.gl/SkSqIG).
Family in this context is seen as people living together in predominantly a single household or at a stretch, when a parent lives elsewhere. Those in the conservative Christian camp have been concerned about the constant barrage on this unit. They would see the ideal family consisting of a Mum, Dad and their biological kids, known as the nuclear family. The term is a relatively new one although there is some evidence that the concept dates back to before industrialisation, perhaps even thousands of years. Since industrialisation, the nuclear family has been seen as a viable financial unit. From the 17th Century in Western Europe and New England the nuclear family concept has thrived due to the influence of the Church and successive theocratic governments (http://goo.gl/tuJW3).
Don’t hear me wrong, I like the nuclear family, I’m a product of one and I live in one and I’m very happy about that. However over the years as we have lived away from family an interesting phenomenon has taken place. Those around us have become family. At times those I have been working with have taken on parent roles, there has been and continues to be brothers and sisters, comrades in the work that I have felt closer to than my own flesh and blood. At those times my family has been geographically distant, at times understanding the work and standing with me, other times not appreciating the journey in the same way as those around me. I’m writing this conscious of the way my own family particularly my Mum and Dad may feel when reading this, however I’m wrestling with the role of family verses other forms of connection.
Whilst I’m reflecting predominantly on the relationship between parent and adult children, I’m also aware that as a nuclear family our relationship with our wider family has not been particularly strong. I’m not in regular connection with any aunties or uncles, similar on my wife’s side and for her there is only one sibling out of three with whom she has regular connection. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this, however the role of the broader family has certainly been picked up by colleagues, friends and those around us.
There are some idealists who want to structure society so as to encourage familial care, particularly as family members age. However because of life choices, conflict and a whole plethora of other reasons, I see this as unrealistic and have experienced and see developing new types of family emerging on the landscape. I long for the day when the communities that we live in, though they may not be flesh and blood actually reflect family, where people can experience deep connection, where they can have the freedom to explore who they are and develop towards their discovered potential.
From one ideal to the next… we may never reach what I am describing however as we look at the universal brother and sisterhood that my faith points to we see a Dreamer who dreamed that the world He created might one day reflect the perfect community that He experiences. My sense is that as we work towards this ideal, we are joining with Him in His longing and struggle and that’s got to be a good thing.