Fantasy families vs harsh realities

2011-04-09 12:45

Crises force us into painful self-reflection and present us with a chance to re-evaluate.

A recently released South African Institute of Race ­Relations research report on South ­African families by Lucy ­Holborn and Gail Eddy reveals that the South African family is in crisis, and that most children are raised by a single parent, who in many instances is herself unemployed.

South African children also very often raise ­themselves and their ­siblings. There is no shortage of signs that various historical factors have led us to this crisis in family life.

Crises force us to take account of what led us to this quagmire and be willing to do away with what does not work, and to embrace something ­better. Holborn and Eddy note: “When we speak of South African families, we talk not only of the nuclear family, but also of extended ­families, as well as caregivers or guardians.”

They are correct. Any discussion of family is not going to get us very far if we pretend to share a universal notion of what ­constitutes a family.

We should clarify the assumptions that shape our positions on family life. We are not in a crisis because we have “broken families”, and because society’s declining morals have led to an abyss.

The solution does not lie in ensuring that old family models are resuscitated at all costs, irrespective of the cracks that have always been apparent.

The idealised heterosexual nuclear family with a mother, a father and children is as fraught with problems as any other modern institution. Such nuclear families can be ­nurturing homes as easily as they can be dangerous and violent places.

I was brought up in a loving, stable, two-parent family and saw many ­others like the one my parents created for us.

But I also know of how harmful and abusive nuclear families can be in other instances. Children thrive when they are raised by stable, loving and happy parents.

Yet, most adults know of couples who stay together ostensibly for the sake of the same children, whose ­confidence they continue to erode. ­

Abusive nuclear families are bad for children raised within them.

So too are neglectful families of any kind.

Shared parenting is no reason for couples who no longer want to be together to stay together. Many parents co-parent with former partners to raise healthy children who are secure in the love of both parents.

Some of the most confident, generous and gentle adults I know were raised by single mothers.

At the same time, the most irresponsible and ­selfish men I know had fathers who were present and supported them as children.

Child-rearing, whether shared or solitary, is hard work.

And society makes it easier for certain kinds of men to walk way, while making single mothers feel guilty about staying and ensuring that their children are well taken care of.

Our society dictates that there is ­something strange about single ­fathers, especially if they are raising girls.

Instead of holding the absent parent responsible, and supporting the parent who takes care of the ­children, we demonise single-parent families as though they have ­something to be ashamed of.

We need to do away with the myth that only men can raise boys.

The world is full of men single-handedly raised by women. Depending on the quality of their parenting, these boys can grow up to be men who are serial killers and rapists, or men who find a cure for cancer.

Maybe raising girls forces men to be more conscious of their own ­gendered behaviour.

Rather than ­being a threat, healthy parenting by single men and women could hold the key to a more functional society.

Healthy families are affirming and loving ones where children feel safe and valued.

This is not the case when children take care of their siblings.

Children who grow up without adult parents are less likely to get an education, and therefore less likely to access quality employment later in life.

These children offer us an opportunity to think about the relationships ­between children and parents differently, and make a mockery of our insistence on the nuclear family.

There is no reason why children raised by single parents, same-sex parents or various nurturing adults in an enabling environment should not grow up to be healthy, productive and secure adults.

This “crisis” in our concept of family will only end when we let go of our uncritical attachment to the heterosexual nuclear family, and take the ­responsibility to act as responsible, nurturing adults in ways that best benefit the children around us, whether they are biologically our own or not.

Those of us with the means and ­desire to parent should also reflect on what it means to neglect the many parentless children in our society in order to share genes with the ­children we raise.

When so many children raise ­themselves, and in the face of so many children given up for adoption, we need to revisit antiquated ideas about adoption.

It does not help us any longer to feign loyalty to an institution that fails to live up to the changing needs of people today, or to a state that is directly implicated in worsening the very crisis we face.

The future lies in building and ­embracing different kinds of ­families: blended, single-parent, same-sex parents, co-parenting, nuclear or any other arrangement that works in the interest of the children.

» ?Gqola is the feminist author of What is Slavery to Me? published by Wits Press

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