As someone who sat down and watched around 70 per cent of the Olympics and Paralympics and has the Haribo hips to prove it, something struck me time and time again. Whilst there were thanks for their coaches, their friends and their teammates, every athlete I saw made it very clear: they couldn’t have done it without the love and support of their family.
They were all there, all generations on the sidelines, cheering them on, sharing their glory or their failure. And they’d been there all along.
Whilst the athletes had the discipline, the focus and the targets, they needed love and support to help them do it. The breakfast-making, the lifts to the pool at six in the morning, the new running shoes for Christmas, the no-holidaythis- year-so-we-can-afford-her-training-trip, the tear-wiping, the ‘let’s see how you feel tomorrow’.
We were told these Olympic and Paralympic Games were the triumph of the individual.
And of course every win was an individual triumph. But to me it was a triumph of the family. And you do wonder, would these athletes have succeeded or ever got to compete in the Olympics without them?
Unlike other countries, the role of family isn’t central to our cultural identity. In fact, it almost feels like something we don’t talk about, with those that do using it for their own narrow purposes. Matters familial end up too moralistic and restrictive when the churches or other religious groups talk about them. Governments fare no better, with the ill-fated ‘Back to Basics’ and the now ubiquitous but pejorative term ‘decent hard-working families’.
Conversely, ‘the system’ is so individualistic and strangely uneasy when it comes to the family. Ask a social policy wonk ‘what about the family’ and they are likely to say, ‘but not all families are functional’ or ‘not everyone has a family’. This is true; there are some families that are abusive, chaotic and destructive. And sadly there are some people with nobody. Yet for most of us, most of the time, family is a place of refuge and our first port of call – and of thanks.
Must we shy away from what families bring to the table and what they need?
There isn’t a society on earth that doesn’t have the family unit, a kinship group at the heart of it. I’m not talking about the nuclear family but the people – blood or no’ blood – we’re brought up by and with, those we give birth to, those we ‘take on’ and those who come with them.
Interestingly, Scottish Widows have set up a think tank, The Centre for the Modern Family and its Family Report of December 2011 found that 84 per cent of families define themselves as not being a traditional family with 2.4 children; 50 per cent of the population believes society has an outdated view of the family; 59 per cent of people see gay couples as a family; and 77 per cent see single parents as a family. It seems the nuclear family has been decommissioned.
Family is where you learn to become a member of your community and the wider world.
It’s where you learn about love, care, mutual responsibility, interdependence, boundaries. And patience. And keeping your mouth shut. And how to cope when things go wrong. Whatever its shape or size and whoever they are, your family can and probably will play a significant role in your happiness and success in life and you theirs.
Families are in a state of constant flux and making the family work requires Olympian efforts. These last few years, our family collectively have lost Mum, grown up, got beaten up, looked after Dad, suffered depression, escaped to a women’s refuge, started university, lost jobs, worried about money, gone to prison, had more babies, taken Dad to the nursing home, cut back on the old drink, buried Dad and gone back to work. Family life requires a constant human revolution. It’s a work in progress that doesn’t end until you end.
But are we as a society geared towards helping families to do what they need to do? The single mum working in Costcutters on the minimum wage while her children are looked after in an after-school club she can’t afford, but can’t do without, would say it wasn’t. Most kinship carers looking after children they did not chose to have but who nevertheless accept responsibility for their kin, would say it wasn’t. An older woman forced to work into her 60s by the steadily withdrawing pension, who, dog tired at the end of her shift, has to detour to feed and bed her elderly mother before going home herself, would say it wasn’t. Two men who want to be married, adopt a child and create a happy home, would say it wasn’t (although in Scotland they’d have hope…).
We need to start looking at how society and its institutions can get in step with the 21st-century family and fully support its role in the stability, happiness, prosperity and success of the country.
Maybe if the independence debate opens up to let in those of us who’d like to talk about what we want for a new Scotia – for Scotland has to change whether we choose independence or not – we can begin to talk about what we need to do to help our families thrive.