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  • Published 20051206
  • ISBN: 9780733316722
  • Extent: 252 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

IT COMES AS something of a shock when a television advertisement for a car sums up the way we think about family: diverse, adaptable, busy, adventurous and changing. But that is what the creators of the campaign for the Nissan Pathfinder have done. They show the vehicle being put through its paces on-road and off, in a range of configurations with a variety of passengers, and conclude that it is ideal for the “modern-day family, whatever it is”.

Advertising copywriters must have their finger on the pulse of the times if their products are to sell, so their best lines resonate. The respectful wondering about what a modern-day family might be hits this nerve. Traditional nuclear families are shown as being as comfortable in the vehicle as adventurous couples, older people, those with young kids, teenagers and groups of friends. They are all part of the rich tapestry of what makes “family” today.

The revival of family as a political and social unit is in itself quite remarkable. Not so long ago conservative commentators were predicting that the permissiveness of a generation – and what they saw as the accompanying rise in divorce, drop in marriage and declining birthrate – would fatally threaten the family unit. Left-wing analysts were inclined to see a rise of individualism in a “me first” society, coupled with wider recognition of the dark side of many patriarchal families, as undermining the family as a viable social unit. The family was predicted to be on its last legs – to be replaced by an individualistic self-satisfied society in which traditional values were jettisoned and random couplings and groupings replaced mum, dad and the kids. For some time, the slogan of the Year of the Family, that the family was the world’s smallest democracy, seemed both idealistic and grandiose.

The dire warnings have not materialised. Instead, family is more important than ever. Family is the most important thing for most Australians in describing who they are, what they stand for and where they belong. Work comes next, and then where they live – but for young and old it is family and marital status that says most about who they are. As social researcher Deborah Mitchell documents in Australian Social Attitudes(UNSW Press, 2005), for 74 per cent of those surveyed in the 2003 Survey of Social Attitudes, “family remains central to personal identity”. There are degrees, of course. Women value family slightly more than men, those in traditional families have a slightly stronger attachment to family than single-parent households, and young people are slightly less defined by family than those over 34 – but only slightly. Instead of rejecting the idea of family, Australians are “re-evaluating ideas about, and roles within, the family while still seeing [it] as central to identity”.

Rather than dying, the family has changed. Its resilience is remarkable: family now comes in all shapes and sizes, good and bad, the place where the buck stops in times of disaster and the first point of reference in good times. Family underpins our material wellbeing and addresses our need to belong, to know where we come from and where we might be going. This happens within biological kinship groups where we learn the bounds of obligation and benefits of loyalty and apply this knowledge both to groupings of intimate associates with whom we share beliefs, hopes and aspirations and in other interactions. Now most of us have many families – biological and blended, of the mind and spirit – as Joanna Mendelssohn shows, and they are all important.

When we talk about family today we conjure a very different set of images to those that once came to mind. “Recent changes in the human family are unprecedented in their scale and speed,” the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote recently. Indeed they are, both here and in many other parts of the world. As a result, what social commentator Hugh Mackay has called the “rear mirror view” of the patriarchal family is definitely passé. Most families are still based on two adults and their children, but they encompass multiple marriages, singledom, and extend up and down and across generations and into networks of friends and colleagues. The social relations that underpin the modern family have changed and the framework in which they relate is profoundly different to what it was a generation ago. It is still evolving.


IT IS EASY to forget how profound these changes have been. Even three decades ago, a child conceived out of wedlock was potentially a matter of unsalvageable shame, the source of a lifetime of grief or guilt and, in extremis, literally life-threatening. The heartbreaking consequences of the social pressure to conform to rigid norms of a model family in the relatively recent past are recalled in graphic detail in Family Politics by Joanna Mendelssohn, Sandy McCutcheon and Carmel Bird. Their memoirs and stories, exploring the consequences of unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, in part help explain the momentum that has underpinned public acceptance of relaxed social mores and ideas of appropriate behaviour. These days, not only is abortion legal and face-saving adoption unusual, a third of babies are born to unmarried parents. Indeed, only half of those who took part in the national survey felt that those who wanted to have children should get married first. For those surveyed, a family was much more likely to be defined by the presence of children in the household than a marriage certificate.

As marriage is no longer a cultural prerequisite for having children, similarly children are no longer central to the economic wellbeing of a family or the key to the future care of the elderly. The scale of the declining birthrate in the West is unprecedented and the projection is that by 2050 Europe will account for only a fifteenth of the world’s population, compared with a quarter in 1900.

Australia is not immune from this trend, and the Government has progressively changed its family and child-care policies to take account of the looming crisis. As Christopher Jay shows, in the early years of the Howard Government, the emphasis was on encouraging women to stay at home to look after their children. The backlash against this was swift and marked. With the political adroitness we have come to expect from the Prime Minister, he changed direction and increasing public funds were allocated to child care, particularly to “for profit” child care. Now the focus has switched to the demographic crisis and the need to encourage women to have more children and to stay in the workforce. This presents political and policy challenges that will need to be addressed in the Budget next year.

Children are a joy, but they are also a cost. As politicians lament the long-term consequences of a declining birthrate and seek to build economic incentives into the social welfare and tax systems to encourage people to have more babies, the press delights in calculating the cost of children. Frightening numbers are quickly produced as the sums for educating, housing and clothing a privileged generation are totted up.

It is striking to realise that social changes over recent decades mean that women are less likely than men to see children as central to their lives. Only a third of the women surveyed in 2003 agreed that a life without a child was not complete, whereas nearly half the men supported this notion, according to Ann Evans and Edith Gray in Australian Social Attitudes.

As this suggests, the cost of children is only one of many reasons for a declining birthrate, one which is predicted to cost future generations a great deal. Yet, as Georgia Blain shows in a moving recollection of her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, the decision to have a child is much more complicated than any financial calculation. We are ill equipped for such emotional calculus.


THE LIVED REALITY is a much more complicated idea of what constitutes a family than would once have been imaginable. Safe contraception, no-fault divorce, increasing levels of female education and the need for two incomes to comfortably sustain a household have all contributed. As Catherine Kevin and Rosaleen Love argue, this trajectory is only likely to gather speed in the future as technology provides a challenging cornucopia of possibilities that promise to change the way we think about everything from conception to aged care. Technological solutions to fertility problems are now expected, technological solutions to facilitate aged care seem rather more far-fetched, but with an ageing population they are likely to be explored.

The flashpoint is most often the need to reconcile the competing demands of work and family. Work, after all, comes second in the list of things that people feel best describes who they are. There is nothing new about this challenge; each generation has dealt with it in its own way – sending kids to work, securing a living wage, keeping women in the home, providing community child care. Indeed the notion of an accommodation between work and family is deeply embedded in the Australian psyche. The first wage-setting agreement early last century was generated on the basis of a living wage sufficient for a man and his family, rather than solely on the economic value of his labour. This was a characterisation of an earlier age. Women are now important members of the workforce – two incomes, or one and a half incomes (and government support), have become the necessity and the norm. The economic reality is that without two incomes most Australian families would struggle to sustain the lifestyle they have come to expect. Putting aside the legitimate career aspirations of women, economics drives many back to work.

As a result, the juggle to keep everything in balance, especially when children are little, has created new pressures – a reality captured brilliantly in Natalie McComas’s photo essay. With this embedded background, it is scarcely surprising that the ACTU campaign against the proposed changes to the industrial relations laws, which featured a woman trying to manage kids, work and home, generated such widespread support. Money, time and family are inextricably bound together. It was always thus: as Hobsbawm notes, “in the eighteenth century … the number of marriages varied inversely with the price of corn”.

Observant analysts of the consequences of these underlying pressures, including Professors Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior, point to a looming social crisis in Australia in their important book Children of the Lucky Country (Pan Macmillan, 2005). Rather than seeing an affluent, rather self-satisfied country, they see families in crisis with a growing number of children at risk. Yet, as Tom Morton argues, the political urgency about tackling this will only gain real momentum when men start to take it as seriously as women and the economic realities underpinning family life are taken more seriously. The 2003 survey data shows convincingly that men are noticeably more conservative than women about family, less tolerant of diversity and more traditional. This is developed by Rosemary Hunter in her analysis of the shifting panics about divorce; in the end, she argues, it is the economics of family that provides the drum beat. Robert Hillman, Annette Trevitt, Alison Ravenscroft and Jennifer Robertson provide emotional texture to the story of broken families.


IT IS NOT surprising then that family has become the battlefield of politics. Conservative politicians have been quick to embrace the family, glossing over its myriad contradictions, seeking comfort in a simple values equation. What is surprising is that the progressive parties have been so slow to grasp the opportunities implicit in the resurgence of family. They are still poking fun at the white picket fence and the 1950s family when, for most people, the idea of family has moved on. It is obvious, too, that the lived reality of the modern family is much more diverse than that, and it is a political sleight of hand to fail to address this. Certainly, there is still a majority of mum-dad-and-two-kids families, but there is an increasing number of blended families, of single-parent families, of single-sex families, of families without children and families in which the children span more than one generation. At some level their needs are the same, but the sheer scale of this diversity and change suggests an openness to new ways of living and thinking that has not been developed in other spheres.

Recognising this complicated mosaic of what it takes to be a family today is an important building block in the fostering of tolerance. It may also point to new ways of thinking about social relations and social change. Noel Pearson has been leading this discussion by seeking urgent remedies to the collapse of families in indigenous communities. If the critique by Fiona Stanley and her colleagues is accepted, Pearson’s prognosis needs to extend well beyond indigenous communities. Addressing it could provide the basis of a new politics in which the family becomes the launching pad for wider community engagement, rather than the place of retreat.

The election of a Family First senator last year was greeted with widespread trepidation because of the party’s conservative social agenda. Yet the demand to include an evaluation of the impact of legislative changes on families is potentially profound and not necessarily reactionary. The Federal Government has so far resisted this push, preferring to see family issues narrowly defined. Senator Steve Fielding is correct to push for a broader scope. Assessing the impact of proposed legislative changes on the wide range of families that co-exist in this country could provide a useful diagnostic tool for the state of the nation. The data from the surveys already to hand suggest a quite different picture would emerge than the happy snap of a family behind a picket fence.

As family has become political shorthand for moral values, the easy next step is to typecast good and bad families. A series of media frenzies has gladly descended on this idea this year – many of the biggest talking points have been related to family: good families and bad families. The incapacity of the Corby family to appropriately manage their daughter Schapelle’s trial in Bali was juxtaposed with the way the Wood family responded to the capture of their brother Donald in Baghdad. The steadfastness of the Rau family as they sought to negotiate the complicated territory of their daughter Cornelia’s wrongful detention, contrasted with the way other families separated by the application of immigration laws were represented in the public domain. The treatment of families who fall foul of increasingly complex immigration laws stands in stark contrast to the political celebration of family. Anne Coombs has responded by arguing here for an amnesty for all visa overstayers who are able to demonstrate good character and meaningful ties to this country, to make them legitimate members of the Australian family.


THE POLITICS OF family are not confined to the public domain. Family politics are beyond left and right, they are intimate and essential. It is the politics of family – the internal dynamic of creating, managing, adjusting, compensating, supporting, arguing, loving, celebrating and eventually burying – that give families their real texture and strength. The memoirs in this issue celebrate these connections, point to the tensions and contradictions and explore the resilience of the family as the place where we learn who we are and what we stand for. Creed O’Hanlon writes about being the son of a famous author, Peter Meredith describes his father’s slow death and David Whish-Wilson travels the world before he can begin to understand his father. Oren Seidler learns to lie for her father, Marion Halligan and Joanna Mendelssohn reflect on the importance of funerals, Katherine Wilson longs for her great-grandmother’s voice and Sylvia Lawson explores the family of friendship.

In many ways, the enduring value of a strong family and the foundation it provides is encapsulated in the life of Donald Horne, one of this country’s most significant public intellectuals, who died in September after a long illness. Last year we were delighted to publish Donald’s insightful essay into his ill-health and ageing. It is with some sadness we now celebrate his life with Stephen Garton’s recollections of the private life of a very public man. This demonstrates the value of an integrated life, and captures the spirit of this issue, which is dedicated to Donald Horne. 


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