It seems that not a day goes by without another politician talking about family life. Recently, both major parties released their green papers on relationships and the family and key ministers could be heard debating the issue loudly. Ahead of the general election it seems that the personal is very much political in the UK and the family, once considered to be a private realm, is now the battle ground for votes. Even the TV listings have the family covered, the latest format called simply The British Family*, taking us back over the history of the institution that was once considered to be the bedrock of society.
This programme about the family in Britain, has raised some interesting points and it has been refreshing to see some of the social policy that governs our family life set in context. Far from being a nostalgic wander back to the days when women stayed at home and cared for the children and dads were breadwinners, The British Family has shown us just how our society has changed over the years and, most of all, why. What is astonishing when watching the programme is the realisation of just how out of step our current day family policy actually is and just how spectacularly the New Labour government has failed in modernising our approach to supporting family life.
The current approach to supporting the family can be traced back to the post war years when women were encouraged back into the home and fathers, returning from the war, took up their old jobs. In 1945, Family Allowance was introduced, as a payment for the support of children, paid directly to mothers rather than fathers in the belief that this was more likely to ensure that it benefited children. This core principle, that mothers are more responsible than fathers and therefore the ‘proper’ people to care for children, remains firmly fixed within our family policy to this day, with Child Benefit – as Family Allowance is now called – still being paid most often to mothers and tax credits and other financial support following close behind. If the picture that our family policy paints is to be believed, mothers remain the cornerstone of our family life, holding together not only their children’s health and well being but that of modern day society too.
But analysis of the footage of The British Family tells a very different story. Far from mothers being the holy grail when it comes to caring for our nation’s children, women, and therefore mothers, have undergone a remarkable transformation over the years, moving out of the heart of the home and into public life in their millions. Far from being dependent upon men for support, women were now capable of earning their own living, supporting themselves and their children along the way. In the late seventies and throughout the eighties, more and more women also chose to have their children outside of marriage, creating a moral panic in our society that lead to the set up of the Child Support Agency. Far from being an institution set up to make feckless and reckless fathers pay their dues, the origins of the CSA lie in the Conservative concern that marriage and the family were no longer pre-requisites for motherhood.
Alongside the liberation of women from the shackles of dependency upon men, came another social revolution, the increasing involvement of men in the care of their children. As we entered into a new century, a whole wave of fatherhood groups emerged, increasing the visibility of active dads and arguing for their rights to be considered an integral part of family life. The footage of the Child Support Agency demonstrations in the early nineties, shows dads pushing children in their prams and holding younger children by one hand with a placard in the other. Clearly these dads were anything but feckless or reckless, what they were desperate for was recognition of their contribution to their children’s lives and resistant to being treated as if they were criminals. And yet our family policy continued to deify mothers and demonise fathers and that trend has not changed in the two decades since.
Listening to Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children Schools and Families talk about families on the Today programme recently was a curious experience. Having worked with families for the past twenty years, I barely recognised the people he seemed to be talking about. For all the initiatives and schemes that this government has produced around parents and children, it seems that family policy remains fixed in the 1940’s belief that mothers are good for children and fathers might be if they can be controlled.
The suspicion that every father is really just an absent parent waiting to emerge is never far from the surface of the New Labour dialogue. This is exemplified in the arguments about sharing financial benefits for the support of children between mothers and fathers, a possibility that Ed insists should be resisted in case women who are abandoned by their husband, (he having moved on to his third wife) will suffer. The idea that every man in the land has the potential to leave his wife and children in poverty appears to be a collective hysteria that is not tempered by the fact that women are equally as capable as men of earning their own living these days. Despite the fact that more dads than ever are involved with caring for their children and many would like to be even more so, our policy and practice around families remains rooted in the belief that mothers must be confined to the role of dependent carer first and independent worker second.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ahead of the General Election it would be refreshing to hear our politicians discuss the family in ways that reflect what is really going on in our homes today. The modern day British family is a far cry from the post war days and we should shift our family policy into the new century in order to support this instead of clinging to outdated notions from the past.
As more mothers and fathers share roles within the home, it would be good to begin to push our family policy towards a more egalitarian support of parenthood for example. We could start by recognising and acknowledging that mothers not only want to work outside of the home but benefit from it and that fathers benefit from being close to their children. Equally, children benefit from being parented by mothers and fathers who are nurturing within the home as well as capable outside of it. Finally, we need to understand and acknowledge that a society in which all of its individual people are combining independence with interdependency, is one in which all of its citizens thrive.
But to get to this place would mean some tough choices, most of which are still likely to be fiercely resisted, particularly by those old feminist stalwarts who were active in breaking open the prison walls of the family in the first place. The likes of Polly Toynbee, particularly vociferous on the issue of men abandoning women would be up in arms at any suggestion that we move to a more egalitarian society. This is because the fundamental belief that underpinned family policy back in the 1940’s, was that men and fathers cannot be trusted. It is a belief that is not only present in our family policy to this day, but one which continues to be unashamedly expounded by our politicians and furthered by policy makers and practitioners alike. This belief, which created a welfare system that sees mothers as carer first and worker second, continues its stranglehold on our society, overburdening mothers and treating fathers as scapegoats.
Despite all of the struggles for freedom shown so well on The British Family, we remain governed by policy which is outdated and based not upon real lives now, but fears from back then. It is about time we stopped tinkering timidly around the edges of our family policy and found the courage to bring about radical change to support the real lives of the people who make up the 21st Century British Family.
The final episode of the British Family can be seen on BBC 2 on February 1st at 9pm, previous episodes are currently available on BBC I Player.