Families… warts and all!

All families are complicated and they are far from the perfect family ‘ideal’, writes Mary Kenny

To be honest, I don’t see anything very awry with the Department of Education’s title for its programme aimed at school children: “Different Families, Same Love.” As a title, at any rate, I’d say it rather hits the nail on the head. Heaven knows families can be different – and even maddening.

Who among us has not looked around at a family gathering – say a wedding party of one of our dear relations – and thought, what a bunch of kinsfolk!

An average family wedding (or funeral) will usually contain one or more of the following: the drunken uncle who can’t keep his hands off the bridesmaids; the embarrassing dad who insists on jiving á la John Travolta; the in-laws who can’t stand one another; the cousin who could peel an orange in his pocket, so as not to have to stand a round of drinks; the siblings who are fighting over a family inheritance; the feuds, the skeletons in the cupboards, the back stories of previous generations still rumbling away in the collective unconscious; the unspoken resentments which risk being loosed by alcohol; the rivalries, the cliquishness, the disapproval by one branch of the family of another.  

And that’s not even to mention those absent because they’re either sulking from a perceived slight or have been deliberately excluded anyway. Nor is it to factor in the multiple stresses which can arise with what’s called “the re-constituted family” – where several re-marriages and the assorted offspring and spouses are mixed up together. 

That’s not new either: even before divorce was practiced, there were clashes and resentments over a widowed father’s second wife or a widowed mother’s second husband. 

Families are, and always have been, complicated, and it would be folly to try and defend the traditional family as some kind of paragon. It’s not. It’s as patchy as all human life is patchy.

And yet, for all that, we usually long for that family ideal. Those of us who grew up without a father, for example, yearned to be able to use the word ‘Daddy’ to a kind, loving, and reliable man. I remember the wave of envy that I experienced as a child watching kids run into their fathers’ arms. 

It’s possible to be honest in facing the fact that families are far from perfect, and often quite odd; yet we still aspire to the natural order that has been and always will be – that triptych which Carl Jung said was embedded as the indelible archetype of ‘Mother, Father – and me’. Deliberately to deny that ideal to a child cannot, surely, be recommended. 


Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Leader, notoriously associated with the “hard Left”, which invariably implies atheism, was asked by a Christian magazine about his attitudes to faith. He said that his mother had been a Bible-reading agnostic, his father a believer. As for himself, he said: “I’m not anti-religious at all. Not at all. I find religion very interesting. I find the power of faith very interesting. I think the faith community offers and does a great deal for people.” Would an Irish Labour leader speak thus? 


Many mothers are simply heroic

A young woman came to do a small job for me recently, and we chatted a little. She was in her thirties, married with five children. “Well done,” I said. Five kids can be quite a responsibility.

The youngest was a baby of a few months. She had been dismayed when she found she was pregnant with him: her other children were settled in school, and she had just got a very good job. 

“It took us a while to get used to the idea of another.” She was disappointed that she couldn’t then commit to the job she had cherished. So the couple were set back in their circumstances.

However, the baby duly appeared and he’s a lovely little fellow, amenable and placid. The older children are sweet to him, and can help out in little ways. She is doing several freelance jobs now to help the family budget. 

It’s not said often enough or loud enough: many mothers are heroic. They make sacrifices for their children. They do the right thing. They work hard. They may miss out on chances for their own fulfilment. Society owes them a debt of gratitude and a position of honour. 

Wherever we can help mothers, we should do. This young mother was grateful that there was a nursery with a good reputation in her area which would, in a couple of months, care for the baby for a few hours a day. 

Babies need their mothers, but they don’t need their mothers all the time, and good crèche services should be available and well-supported.  

There really are aspects of family life that are admirable!