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What are the family values worth fighting for?

Posted on 30 April 2012, 16:09

Lauren is crying in frustration. Now in her mid-thirties, she has travelled half way across the world to escape her controlling mother but the mileage seems to have made little difference. By phone and e mail, Lauren is still bombarded with demand and reprimand and it’s upsetting her. When she recently refused Skype contact, her mother felt slighted and was furious. Lauren regarded it as one invasion too many and knew she had to stand firm; yet still felt guilty about her negative feelings towards her mother.


As we reflected together on the situation, we saw that Lauren was playing the kind adult to her childish parent but it was hard:

‘I’m an adult, I’ve left home and live on the other side of the world,’ said Lauren, who is a successful PR executive. ‘But when she makes contact, I might as well be seven and still trying to please her.’

Families, like the poor, are always with us. But just how honest are we about them? And what are the family values worth fighting for?

Unlike previous generations of politicians, the present crop must have a view on family life. David Cameron places great emphasis on the family and sees marriage as the heart of it. At the Welsh Conservative Conference in 2009 he said: ‘We want to see a more responsible society, where people behave in a decent and civilised way, where they understand their obligations to others, to their neighbours, to their country - and above all, to their family.

Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them.’ At his party conference in October, 2011 he said: ‘Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life. It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. So yes, we will recognise marriage in the tax system.’

His coalition partner, Nick Clegg only half agrees. ‘Getting married,’ he said ‘is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. But as a liberal I think there are limits to how the state and government should try to micromanage or incentivise people’s own behaviour in their private lives.’ Earlier in the day, in a speech to the Demos think-tank, he’d said: ‘We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother - and try and preserve it in aspic. That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage.’ 

Ed Miliband also opposes the pro-marriage stance of Cameron. At a London event in May, 2011 he insisted that marriage was not a crucial part of family life. ‘I am pro-commitment,’ he said, ‘but I think that unlike David Cameron, I am not going to say that those families that aren’t married are automatically less stable than those families that are.’

The leftward-leaning Labour MP Diane Abbott, however, is concerned about what she perceives as a lack of interest in ‘family’ in her party: ‘Some of my colleagues are skeptical of Ian Duncan Smith’s family narrative,’ she says, ‘and I share that up to a point. I’m a single mum… and don’t want to feel second class because of it… but we shouldn’t abandon talking about the family to the right and extremist religious nut jobs.’ Off the record, another parliamentary source in the Labour party went even further when reflecting on the summer riots: ‘We’ve got to do police but family is equally relevant and if we don’t tackle that we will be out of touch. This is not just a post-riots issue, it goes much deeper.’

Politicians may not do God but they certainly do family; and when they do, they talk mainly about marriage. There’s a reason for this as research suggests marriage provides a more stable background for children. Where marriage breaks down, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of crisis and dysfunction. I listened recently to someone working in a school on a ‘sink’ estate. She said that hardly any of the children’s parents were married and that a very high percentage were from multi-parent families. By that, she meant that brothers and sisters all have a different surname. These children have very little support at home, she said, ‘probably because their parents put themselves first.’ 

Parents staying together is a factor in healthy families but is not the heart of the matter. The breakdown of marriage is only one tree in the forest for in the end, it’s not the quantity but quality of adults around the child that is most crucial in their healthy development. The plain fact is that like Lauren, 4 out 5 of the people who come to see me for therapeutic help as adults had two parents who stayed together but who, out of ignorance or psychological laziness, passed on the poor parenting they received to the next generation. If we imagine renewing the family is all about saving marriages, we are mistaken. Two parents can leave you just as damaged as one.

But what of the church in all this? It’s been common during the last twenty years to hear Conservative politicians berate the church for not giving a clearer lead in family life. There’s an element of comedy in the fact that while politicians preach family values the church focuses on politics. When Rowan Williams reflected on societal unease in his 2011 Christmas address, he didn’t blame family breakdown but a breakdown in communal trust: ‘The most pressing question we now face,’ he said, ‘we might well say, is who and where we are as a society.

Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost. Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.’

But when it comes to family values, the church is aware of an elephant in the room - and the elephant is Jesus. The church follows a man who is unique amongst religious leaders for disowning his mother and choosing a public place in which to do it. Imagine it! Today, the pressure on people to buy a cheesy mother’s day card is enormous. How could you not want to say thank you to this most central of figures in your life? Yet the gospels record an incident when Jesus doesn’t play this family game.  He’s talking to his followers when his mother, brothers and sisters turn up and ask to speak with him. Their aim is to dissuade him from his increasingly public ministry – a role that has taken him, the eldest son, away from the home. His response is shocking. He refuses to go and meet them and says:

‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Whoever does what my father in heaven wants him to do is my brother, my sister and my mother.’ Blood family is ignored and a family of affinity encouraged.

Even in our supposedly liberated times, these 27 words spoken by Jesus would be considered unacceptable. Only the lowest of the low can disown their mother, surely? Yet in the patriarchal Jewish society of 1st century Palestine, where the 4th commandment required you to honour your father and mother, the words were even more shocking.

But here’s the interesting question: is there a moment in our development when each of us, like Jesus, needs to forsake the family? Do we sometimes have to say goodbye to our family in order to say hello to them again? This is the premise in my recent book, Forsaking the Family – an attempt to look at this instituion with honest and contemplative eyes, away from the platitudes that so often surround the subject.

And it get’s worse for the church, for lurking in the Old Testament scriptures, amongst many family horror stories, is the darkest incident of all: the tale of Abraham setting out with his son Isaac in order to sacrifice him to God. It’s a tale of appalling child abuse told as if it is all rather divine. Here’s a story of a father who agrees to kill his son when asked by the Almighty. It’s a story which includes a death march: the three-day walk of father and son, with the son deceived about their destination and plans. As a parent I am repulsed by the idea and as a child, I am terrified. A walk together is usually a trusting and close affair but not on this occasion.

We then reach the moment which the storyteller, perhaps unsurprisingly, skims over. Abraham finally turns towards his son and using both his physical strength and the authority vested in him, forces him to climb up onto the altar. He then ties him down with cord. It will need to be tight, otherwise his son might wriggle in an attempt to evade the plunging knife. How would you handle this if you were the parent, if you were Abraham?

There is no dialogue recorded for this part of the story. Is Isaac literally dumb-struck? He’s unaware of the fate his father has planned, though he must be weeping inside with confusion and fear. Finally, the knife-holding hand of the adult is raised and the truth is clear to young Isaac. His father, the man he trusts above all others, is about to kill him.

What is there to commend this story? If it is a story about the merits of blind obedience, then we might equally celebrate the obedience of those who faithfully carried out orders in Auschwitz or Treblinka. What ethical check on obedience exists if child murder can be applauded when carried out obediently? And more crucially: what of the feelings of the child? Do you ever recover from such an incident? Presumably your only path of survival – one still common today - is to deny within that it ever happened. ‘My father would never have done that. I must be making it up.’
The psychologist Alice Miller, reflecting on this story, believes that the Fourth Commandment has had disastrous outcomes for the family. Writing on her website, she said: ‘Over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud subjected himself without reserve to the prevailing idea of morality by putting all the blame on the child and sparing the parents. His successors did precisely the same.’ She believes psychoanalysis is now more open to the child’s story but in these attempts is still ‘largely thwarted by the Fourth Commandment.’
She quotes the Auchwitz commandant Rudolph Hoss: ‘Above all, I was constantly reminded,’ he said, ‘that I was to comply with and follow the wishes or commands of parents, teachers, priests etc, indeed all grown ups including servants and that I was to allow nothing to distract me from that duty. Whatever they said, went. These fundamental values of my upbringing became part of my flesh and blood.’ We note that the Nazis were pro-marriage and pro-obedience towards parents; we note also that for them as for many today, the family was a sacred cow that could not be questioned. In such a climate, as every psychotherapist knows, for a son or daughter to take on their parents is the ‘last battle’ and to be avoided at all costs, no matter how much of themselves or their past they have to deny. People will blame everybody – and particularly themselves, exhibited commonly in depression – before blaming their parents. 

But this is not a counsel of despair. I am optimistic for families. The harm done by one generation need not be passed on to the next. As wonderful parents across the country show, a damaged child does not need to become a damaging parent. And we break the cycle of destructive family settings when we become aware of our own experiences as children. Did you have difficult parents? Difficult parents, according to psychologist Sue Gerhardt, tend to fall into three categories: neglectful, intrusive or inconsistent.

Neglectful parents are often themselves depressed and find it hard to respond to their babies. Oppressed by their own concerns, they are withdrawn, offer no eye contact and pick the child up only to feed or clean them. As a result, the baby develops depressed ways of interacting, as modelled by the parent. The intrusive parent will display anger, even if it’s passive. They’ll resent the child’s demands and express their aggresssion towards them.

Perhaps they pick the child up abruptly, hold it in a stiff manner or throw it down on the bed. This parent fails to pick up any signals from the child who will grow up insecurely attached and emotionally avoidant.

The inconsistent parent - sometimes concerned, sometimes switched off - forces children into heightened awarness of their parent’s mood to optimise the chance of getting a response. The unpredictable behaviour of the parent gives the parent power, making the child - and later the adult - always available to them and always needing them. This is known as a ‘resistant’ or ‘ambivalent’ attachment. 

Talk of family values is good for the family is always with us. But let’s talk of those things which make families truly valuable. And most crucial to a happy home and gracious growing is not the marriage vows or obedience to parents but the extent to which the parent or carer is emotionally available to the child, able to respond to their signals of discomfort or delight and able to soothe and calm when disturbed. This is particularly so in the first two years of life when the hard-wiring of the human brain is taking place - the hard-wiring which will be taken onto the streets and into work in adult life.

And as the first two years of life are crucial to the health of the family so is a sense of eternity. Truth is strange to our ears because it’s so rare but according to Jesus, the family does not exist in any eternal sense. We recall a scene recorded in the gospels when those negative towards Jesus were trying to catch him out over the eternal nature of marriage. Desiring to make Jesus look foolish, they asked this: who will a woman be married to in heaven if she has been married to more than one person on earth? Now there was a tricky one for the so-called Teacher to handle!

Jesus is under-whelmed by their cleverness. The premise of the conundrum is that relationships on earth will continue as they are beyond the grave, making for hellish chaos, dispute and bad feeling. But Jesus does not accept this premise. He simply replies that things will not be like that; that if we look to the eternal future, we are looking at a different way of being.

The message is clear: our complex network of relationships on earth will not be polished up a little and then transferred to the halls of heaven; such concepts as marriage and family, which so dominate earthly life, will have no existence there. It will be different. We’re presented with mystery, certainly but not a conundrum and the only ones left looking foolish in this encounter are those too narrowly obsessed with the confines of the present ways and structures. But then who can blame them? That’s what they had been taught from their mother’s knee. They had been taught that marriage and obedience to the family ethos were everything. What else could they do but believe it and assume it an eternal truth?

Families come in all shapes and sizes and no two are the same. The family is the oldest institution in the world because it’s so flexible, reinventing itself down the centuries, across the world and in our own lives in ever-different forms. Families can be both wonderful and tragic. They have the power to create but also the power to destroy which should make us cautious about calls to ‘strengthen the family’ for it begs the question: which aspect of the family are we strengthening?

And so we return to where we started. Lauren is a Christian and concerned at her negative feelings towards her mother. We laugh about it not being a concern that Jesus seemed to share and she’s relieved when I say that she’s not responsible for the relationship: ‘The child’s relationship with the parent is all down to the parent.’ This is self-evident. It’s a psychological impossibility that a child would turn their back on a parent who has loved them in a cnsistent and accepting manner. Parents create their children which is why to a greater or lesser degree, we must all leave our family, as Jesus did, to find ourselves; and perhaps to find our families all over again.

For if Jesus disowned his mother in life, he looked after her in death. In a moving scene, the crucified Jesus creates a new family – not one of blood but of affinity. Speaking from the cross, Mary is told to take John as her son and John is told to take Mary as his mother. From this time on, we are told they shared a home together.

Lauren will create a good family around her, whether one of blood or affinity, because at some expense to herself, she’s being honest about her experiences and feelings. In fact, is the most shining family value that of honesty?

Forsaking the Family by Simon Parke is Published by White cro Books and available from Amazon and all good online bookstores.

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