International Day of Families is commemorated every year on 15 May, and this year I serendipitously booked a long-overdue family photoshoot with my in-laws. All of them, I must stress.
We gathered in a nearby forested area and tried to arrange everyone into a photogenic group while the photographer did her best to get everyone to smile and look in the right direction.
Needless to say, with eight children of all ages and many adults milling about, it was chaos. The photographer worked quickly and we soon got it over with, luckily with minimal tears and drama.
Why bother? I did wonder to myself at one point when half the family had wandered off in one direction and the other half was consoling a distressed toddler, but then looking at the preview photos later that evening, I was reassured that it was worth it.
Photographs are moments in time, and even if one of the kids is frowning in the pic, we know he cheered up a minute later. When families live far apart or seldom see each other, it's also good to have a record of the times we are together, and to share with other far flung friends and family.
These photos are also a reminder of the love and support that we offer each other, the people we lean on and care for and choose to spend our time with.
But, as Alef Meulenberg, CEO of Afrika Tikkun Foundation, reminds us, the faces in your family photographs aren't just the people we turn to when we need advice, have something to celebrate or need a shoulder to cry on.
By providing support and stability, they're also playing a part in building society. This role of the family as the foundation of our communities is worth applauding, he reminds us.
"It's easy to overlook the importance of a caring home – until you see the fallout of growing up without one", Meulenberg adds. As CEO of an organisation which provides education, health and social services to underprivileged communities throughout South Africa, he knows how this affects communities.
He points out that studies show that all areas of life are affected for children who grow up without the stability of a strong family unit – they often show problematic behaviour, have low vocabulary skills and high school dropout rates.
In South Africa, where many children grow up without the love and influence of their parents, the problems become even more significant: for example, boys who grow up in families that have been deserted by fathers tend to show greater aggression.
This may have implications for the country's high rate of gender-based violence. All of this makes sense, given that family is usually the first form of community we encounter, he says.
It's clear that our family members shape our social development to a large extent: we take on their values, while learning about socialisation from them. Our parents, siblings and extended family members guide how we interact with others through our understanding of rules and norms.
The Covid-19 pandemic also taught many of us the value of family, and the loss caused by an absence of parents, siblings and much-loved relatives. Meulenberg points out that family dynamics in many homes have also been affected by factors such as financial strain, or the impact of depression, anxiety and stress.
Children may also be negatively impacted if both parents work a lot or spend large amounts of time away from home, while other issues placing strain on family relationships range from drug addiction to the impact of crime and physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
He highlights the work the foundation is doing at their centres, by placing a large focus on protecting children from the fallout of these challenges.
Even if your own family is in a fortunate position and is not faced with such challenging circumstances, it is still extremely important to build and maintain a strong family unit. Children who experience childhood in a happy family grow up to be positive, confident adults, capable of handling conflict effectively and nurturing strong interpersonal relationships.
It might not have been obvious to an outsider watching us try to coordinate that photoshoot in the forest, but it actually does take little effort to develop the bonds between family members.
Meulenberg says the most simple way to do this is by making time for each other: while we all know the importance of quality time, we also know that it is difficult to make time for each other, with all the other pressures and responsibilities of raising kids.
As for my family, after the shoot we all gathered at the nearby home of my sister-in-law, we set out snacks and the children raced their trucks up and down the passage while the parents gulped down a much-needed coffee. We chatted and laughed and the stress of the afternoon melted away, leaving only the sweet photos we have to remember the family, together.
Family traditions are a great way to create memories and bond, Meulenberg stresses, although I can't say I'm planning to make our family photoshoot an annual event. For now, we're all just happy to have caught up, connected and clicked... and we have the photos to prove it.
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