Sunday 20 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Family values? Yes and no

The family, extolled as an ideal, can be far from perfect

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Many good people in Ireland are volunteering to serve as stewards for the Pope's visit in August for the World Meeting of Families. And I feel sure that Francis will be met with the customary Céad Míle Fáilte traditionally accorded to visitors to this country, and all will go well.

However, I'm not entirely comfortable with any general theme which over-emphasises, or sentimentalises, the family. Yes, we nearly all need - and want - happy families, but face the facts: the family can be a cauldron of feuds, malice, spite, jealousy, resentments, lifelong sibling rivalries, scapegoating, unresolved childhood conflicts, and at the extreme, even murder. (Scriptural source: Cain and Abel.)

John Mahoney, the endearing Frasier actor who died earlier this year, was one of eight children - born in Manchester of Irish parents - and what he recalled most vividly about his own family was their exceptional ability to hold grudges. "I've got sisters who wouldn't talk to each other for 30 years because of some imagined insult," he said in an interview. I know plenty of such cases, too.

I have at least three friends where family members have been on "non-speakers", as the quarrelling Mitford sisters used to say, for years: a sister who doesn't talk to a brother over some argument of yore; a sister who doesn't talk to a sister since their parents died; a brother who does his best to keep the peace between other siblings who fell out over an inheritance (a classic Irish trope). I even have a friend who was sued by her own sibling - more inheritance wars - and the fur flies when mention of family occurs. I have also encountered grandparents who have never met their own grandchildren because of a family difference.

I've experienced feuds in my own family - for some years, my late sister and I fell out. I thought she was irrational and unreasonable - she thought I was callous and arrogant. Looking back, I can see that sometimes I was, and I wish to God I had that time back, now, to heal the breach sooner. As she approached death, we became closer, but the time lost could never be amended.

But, as Bertrand Russell so wisely said: "Everything is really about something else." The "presenting problem", as doctors call symptoms, may not be the real malady. To be honest, I think I ruined my sister's life just by being born: with consummate tactlessness, my parents sent her away to live with our grandmother soon after I appeared. Thus the wound of rejection is inflicted, and the terrible quarrel that Ursula and I had in the 1990s about a pair of purple gloves wasn't really about the gloves at all.

Respect for family life is universal, but it can be over-stated to the detriment of justice, and kindness. We are all aware of the cruelty meted out to single mothers in times gone by - you only have to say "Magdalene homes" on Twitter to attract a rain of abuse heaped on to church and state for the very existence of these institutions. And yet, who put these young women in the Magdalene homes? Their families. Who turned their backs on "errant" daughters who became pregnant out of wedlock? Their own mothers and fathers, desperate that shame should not be brought on "the family".

Yes, there was also an economic issue, as the economist Finola Kennedy, author of Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland, points out. People hadn't the means to support a single mother and there was no state welfare. But the main culprit for the mothers' plight, and the neglect, and high mortality, of the babies, was surely the family's rejection. And because their families rejected them, the unmarried mothers and their infants lost even more status in the eyes of society.

The World Meeting of Families places family life within the context of Christian scriptures: but it's worth noting that early Christianity was rather hostile to the family. Jesus Christ urged his followers to leave their mothers and fathers: the Christian community, not their kinfolk, was what counted.

Yes, there are many terrific families, and yes, I love my own family dearly, and I hope I'd go to the stake for them. And yes, it's important for children to grow up in a stable and loving family environment, because that becomes the template for so many subsequent relationships. Siblings fight, but even the quarrels can be a useful training for handling relationships in later life. Singleton children have many advantages, but they are often less skilled at negotiations either in politics or trade, because they haven't had the practice of doing a deal, involving give and take.

The church today is right to emphasise the cherishing and nourishing aspects of family life, and how much this contributes to the common good. And if LGBT families wish to be included in this tent, they should surely not be turned away (though previous gay ideology rejected the "bourgeois family", and some still do).

But triumphalism about "family values" isn't apt, since it's so obvious that the family can be problematic as well as ideal, that there are distortions of family power as well as constructive use of family solidarity. When families become powerful dynasties they may be sources of injustice by excluding those outside the clan.

Perhaps there should be as much emphasis on healing the broken aspects of family life as on extolling the family as a paragon.


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