Changes in family life
A new study of Irish family life has disclosed how family patterns have changed over the years, with more couples co-habiting, more children born out of wedlock, and almost one child in five growing up with a single parent.
We should never have too rigid an attitude to family structure in itself. As we have seen, in a recent hideous case of family abuse, rape and child cruelty in Co. Roscommon, evil events can occur within a family setting that, ostensibly, is presided over by a mother and a father.
Where the basic situation is dysfunctional, a mother and a father can be horrible collaborators in inflicting wrong-doing and suffering on their own children. The French call this a folie a deux — when one person in a partnership is egging on the other to match them in crime.
However, let me turn to another aspect of the Economic and Social Research Ireland’s findings on Irish family life: the rising number of young women who are better educated than their spouses, and who become the main family breadwinner.
An education is always to be valued, and if the wife is the principle breadwinner in some families, and that works to the common good of the family unit, that’s fine. But looking back on my own experience, I must confess to some mixed feelings about this situation.
My husband was, initially, certainly much better-educated than I was: I left school at 16, whereas he had gone on to get a degree with distinction at Magdalen College in Cambridge.
He had also done military service and become an expert in Serbo-Croat.
However, there were passages in our married life when I was earning more steadily than he was, and I took over the main responsibility for family support: though he always contributed what he could.
Yet, I think, somewhere in my psyche, I resented the fact that I had to be the main breadwinner. As time went by, I began to see the advantages of marrying a man who could support a wife and family responsibly.
As a young feminist, I had clamoured for the entitlement to be addressed as the main householder, by the local authority or utility companies.
By and by, I began to curse the fact that I had to cope with the regular stream of bills and household stuff while my dear husband put his Serbo-Croat expertise into practice in the Balkans.
Couples must manage as best they can, and if a marriage is to survive, they’ll find a way of working things out. And so we did.
But the experience has left me with a certain reserve about welcoming, wholesale, the idea that women — especially as mothers — should have to step up to the plate and take responsibility for everything.
In social studies, this is a phenomenon which has been often noted among Afro-Carribean communities: the women are doing everything, while the young men play Jack-the-lad and never grow into the maturity of male, adult responsibility.
Not an admirable outcome either. Social revolutions should be measured with care.
Home and hearth
It is usual now to pour scorn on De Valera’s ‘narrow’ vision of the conventional family as outlined in his 1937 Constitution. But it might be more reflective to see behind this family idyll which Dev projected. Surely, it was influenced by the fact that young Eamon de Valera lacked an intact family life himself as a child.
Rejected, to some extent, by his natural mother, who remained in America while she sent her young child back to Co. Clare to be raised by rather cold relations, De Valera must have longed for that mammy-and-daddy-and-siblings family circle. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to this ideal, and Dev’s poignant image of home and hearth came directly from his deprivation of the same.
Fake it till you make it
With characteristic courage and candour, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has urged lapsed Irish Catholics to have the honesty to walk away from the Church if they are not true believers, instead of being half-in and half-out, with maybe half an eye on the utility of a church baptism, wedding or funeral for family members.
I know it’s disheartening for priests who baptise children, and then maybe don’t see the family for the next seven years, until First Communion arises and it is time for another rite of passage. Let me suggest another perspective.
In that great spiritual movement, Alcoholics Anonymous, addicts are often encouraged on with corny, but memorable phrases, and one such is: ‘Fake it till you make it’.
Even if you haven’t yet achieved sobriety, try to ‘think sober’ and get your attitude right. Fake sobriety, until it becomes second nature. Maybe there is a parellel here with faith.
Even if people are half-heartedly adhering to a faith practice for reasons of custom or educational advantage, maybe by ‘faking it’ they will eventually ‘make it’. The door of faith must, I feel, always be left open and people enter those doors by the most surprising means.