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Long live the family

The nuclear family still seems to exist as an ideal, but in reality it is under threat. It often ends in tears, and yet we keep re-inventing it. What are the consequences for the children who have to get used to living in new, blended families? And can we organise our society in a smarter way to help make families more viable? Asterisk has been talking to two DPU researchers about what the modern family looks like today, and what its future holds in store.

2021.05.05 | Mathilde Weirsøe

Many of us belong to families that include not only stepmothers and stepfathers, but also stepchildren, ex-husbands, bonus sisters, half-brothers and eight grandparents. Not to mention bonus uncles, bonus aunts and bonus cousins. Please feel free to add any other categories you can think of. In many places, the blended family has now replaced the traditional nuclear family (40 per cent of which break down). And yet the nuclear family still seems to be our ideal setup. Even when it breaks down, we keep recreating new nuclear families with new partners.

“The nuclear family is like a zombie. Whatever happens, it just keeps on walking. Even though we knock it down, it just keeps on getting up again.”

This is how Ida Wentzel Winther describes the situation. She is a cultural sociologist and associate professor at DPU, Aarhus University, where her research includes families and homeliness. She underlines that even though the nuclear family is the ideal, and even though most of us (60 per cent) live in this kind of family, family patterns vary enormously. Statistics Denmark has registered 37 different types of family in Denmark, all of which have children as their central point of focus.

“The family is a small communal universe – a community for socialisation in which you bring up your children and teach them about life. It’s a place where you connect with other people – often implying some kind of blood relationship. But the importance of this blood relationship depends on the family setup in question,” she says.

Swings and roundabouts

For the purpose of analysis, Ida Wentzel Winther divides families into short, narrow families and long, broad families respectively. She has developed these concepts in collaboration with her colleagues Eva Gulløv, Charlotte Palludan and Mads M. Rehder in connection with their research into sibling relationships, which resulted in 2014 in a book entitled Hvad er søskende? (What are Siblings?)

Short, narrow families are nuclear families consisting of a mother, a father and one or more children. Or just one parent and one or more children. Long, broad families arise when a couple split up and then form new families with new partners who also have children from previous relationships. The new couple might then have their own children, who become the centre of a new nuclear family.

“They return to the ideal and form a new narrow family, even though this didn’t work out last time. The result is a long, broad family, reflecting the temporality and historicity connected to the new extended family consisting of your/my/our children and everything else associated with the entire package,” explains Winther.

The question is what this kind of family division and augmentation does to children like Amalie, Miranda and all the other children who are “shared, distributed and allocated,” as Winther puts it.

“It’s undoubtedly challenging for some children. But the addition of new siblings and a new social father or mother may make other children stronger. So in my view this is not a story of decline. It’s more like a question of swings and roundabouts. The way an individual child perceives their membership of a new family varies, depending on many different circumstances. It’s difficult for some of them, but not all,” she says. But she underlines that being shared, distributed and allocated in new families is always hard work for children.

“They have to navigate their path in very different family setups with different routines and practices. So you could say that long, broad families are constantly being shaken up and re-invented. And some children even experience a sense of uncertainty and loss. They miss their new siblings and other family members when they’re not with them,” she says.

The ideal family

Ida Wentzel Winther points out that even though many people now live in long, broad families, the politicians still ask us to remain in our family bubbles during the coronavirus as if we all lived in nuclear families. In reality, many of us are in contact with many different people even though we stick to our own family bubble.

“The same thing applies to legal issues. Not least when it comes to inheritance law. Inheritance law is designed for short, narrow family structures,” says Winther, who refers to the family as a normative phenomenon.

This is because families are deemed to be more or less ‘real’ and ‘proper’. For instance, people say things like ‘She comes from a proper nuclear family’, or ‘Is she your real sister?’ But the notion of the proper or real family does not always reflect the way many of us actually live. So Winther distinguishes between the idea of the family (the ideal) on the one hand, and the family we live with (the reality) with all its accompanying mundane difficulties on the other hand.

“The ideal harmonious family comes in many shapes and sizes, but the overall aim is to relate to each other and find happiness. Long, broad families hit the wall sometimes – particularly when conflicts arise. And social relationships normally seem easier to escape than ties of blood. If you stop seeing your biological father or biological siblings owing to a conflict, you still have a father or siblings. But if you stop seeing your stepfather or step-siblings, they stop being your family,” she says.

Children are conservative  

Martin Munk, a professor of educational sociology at DPU, Aarhus University, is interested in the conditions that create viable families. Viability is closely connected to the continuation of the family and social mobility – in other words, how successful children are in life. Do they get an education that qualifies them for the labour market? Do they find a job that enables them to pay their way in the world? And do they manage to create a stable family?

Over the past couple of years, Martin Munk has conducted a number of quantitative studies to identify the factors which either support or counteract social mobility. One of these factors is whether your father and mother live together. The degree to which your parents are connected to the labour market is also important: the looser this connection, the greater the degree of instability at home. Surprisingly enough, the studies carried out by Munk and his colleague David Harding show that the educational status of your parents plays a minor role in relation to social mobility today.

“Our studies of the decline in social mobility reveal that the life chances of middle-class children today are poorer than those of their parents. Education no longer seems to be the decisive factor. So we have analysed social factors which have specific importance for many middle-class lives today. For instance in households with a high level of education, where children and young people increasingly grow up in broken families while the labour market is increasingly fractured and insecure.”

He presents two examples of children’s lives with very different outcomes owing to differences in terms of the stability of the two homes in question:

“There’s a difference between growing up with your own well-educated parents in an intact family. And growing up in a more chaotic environment when your parents have split up and you live with your mother, who only has a loose connection to the labour market. Your mother lives with a series of different men. This kind of childhood is difficult. All else being equal, a child from a well-educated family whose parents are still together will do better in life than children with well-educated parents who live apart,” he says. He adds:

“Children are pretty conservative. They like a stable, secure family life and everyday routines.”

Traditionally, a child’s life chances have been assessed based on the educational and social background of its parents. Although this background is an important factor, Munk underlines that the most important factor is family stability. Do your mother and father live together? Are they both in employment? Is there a general sense of calm, care and expectation in the family? These factors are actually more important in terms of social mobility than education and income in themselves.

“Children who grow up in stable families have a higher degree of trust in the people close to them, and they take this trust with them when they find friends and partners later in life. But if they can’t rely on their parents and their upbringing has been characterised by break-ups, their trust in other people (and perhaps in themselves) will suffer as a result,” says Munk. He adds:

“Children from financially advantaged homes might do well at school despite disappointments and break-ups at home. They might grow up and graduate successfully in political science at the University of Copenhagen. But they might also have problems – for instance drinking too much, or finding it hard to establish close relationships. Until now we have believed that as long as children are equipped with plenty of cultural capital at home, they will be familiar with the codes used in school and will automatically do well. But in fact this is not the most important component of success in life as a whole. The most important factor is the family’s social capital, including stability. There’s no doubt about it!’”

Caring produces stability  

Broken and blended families are now almost as common as classical nuclear families in Denmark, and Martin Munk believes that this is related to the increase in individualisation. Individualisation means releasing the autonomy of the individual. But there is also a flip side to this apparently positive tendency. It has encouraged a development leading to the dissolution of family structures.

“We have all been given our freedom – so in principle we are also free to break out of the family and live in looser family structures. But this freedom comes at a price. And it’s children who pay this price,” he says.

Ida Wentzel Winther can’t say which family structure is best for children, because families and children vary a great deal. Like Martin Munk, she uses an example which is like a caricature: a wealthy family on the one hand, and a more chaotic single mother on the other. This is to illustrate her point that children sometimes have to switch between very different environments, and that it is not easy to decide which family structure works best and means most for the individual child. Is it better to live with your wealthy father, a director who has formed a new, stable nuclear family in Northern Zealand? Or to live with your slightly chaotic but loving mother, an artist living in central Copenhagen who has had what she herself refers to as ‘quite a number’ of partners over the years? Ida Wentzel Winther does not believe that the father in this example necessarily represents most stability for the child.

“The mother’s stability might consist of her extremely loving and caring relationship with her child, and the fact that she is always there for the child. And the father might be so busy with his career and new family that he doesn’t pay his child enough attention,” she says. She underlines that she is not judging either of these two types of family. People are entitled to make their own decisions.

“But as a society we need to be aware of the current situation. The truth is that lots of families break down – but we still need a family. If we want the family to survive during a period in which blended families are becoming increasingly common, we need to remember that a family can be many things. Many children live in very different families, swapping one type of family for another on a weekly basis. So this needs to be reflected in the narratives with which they are presented at school. And in what our prime minister says at press conferences about the coronavirus,” she says.

The welfare state has let us down

Martin Munk is reluctant to accept the state of decline which he feels many modern families are experiencing at present. He is interested in reversing this trend, which has led to family breakdowns and the creation of new, complicated family setups. One of the things society needs to do is create better conditions to encourage the sustainability of families. And he believes that the welfare state is letting us down in this respect.

“The generosity of the universal welfare state is under threat at the moment. This is leading to increasing inequality and a state that exerts tighter control. This development counteracts the social mobility not only of the middle class, but also of the underclass, which has been more or less frozen for generations. The underclass is more likely to be dependent on what’s known as transfer income from the state, which is an intergenerational problem,” he says. He adds:

“We are used to hearing that the welfare state will always take care of marginalised families. But instead of being dependent on poorly paid jobs, many people in the underclass have now become dependent on the nanny state. Modern society does not want its citizens to be unfree. But unfortunately, dependence on the state is often inherited in families. If children experience this kind of dependency when they are young, the risk of them being dependent as adults increases.”

Strong local communities

So what is the alternative to the welfare state? How can more families become viable? Martin Munk believes that the answer is to create a number of strong, autonomous local communities (with the population of a medium-sized municipality). In other words, he thinks the power of the state should be decentralised. For the sake of families and future generations.

“Good local communities and families depend on social capital – in other words, on good networks and relationships based on trust. We Danes have always been good at creating local associations and interest groups, so we know how to build up a strong civil society, and I don’t think this would be difficult for us,” he says.

These local communities would make us less dependent on the state, but more dependent on each other. And Munk believes that the latter is only a good idea if we also cultivate a stronger sense of mutual trust and care for each other, rather than leaving this task to a dysfunctional welfare state. We also need to establish more institutions of education, companies and jobs all over Denmark, thereby encouraging young people to remain in their local communities and bring up families there.

A return to communal living?

Martin Munk’s research lies within the field of communitariansm, the philosophy that communities are the essential ingredients of society – not individuals, states or nations. Communitarianism invites us to relate more to each other – not just in our families, but also as citizens in the local community. Which may mean that we need to live differently – and closer together.

“Communal living could be part of the solution. The people who live in these communities can become an extended family. For instance, they can all help to look after each other’s children. And if these communities extend their boundaries and become part of the wider local community, they can contribute to the development of viable families. But this will only happen if they contribute to the community instead of isolating themselves from the world around them,” says Munk.

Ida Wentzel Winther points out that the communes of the 1970s tried to create an alternative to the family but quickly ran into problems, ending in mundane quarrelling, arguments, and not least different ideas about how to bring up children and the limits to privacy. Very few people still live in such communes, but a lot of people still experiment with different ways to live. For instance, communal living is becoming increasingly popular in Denmark. But these new versions of communal living have their own problems, too, she says:

“One of the reasons why families with children establish new forms of communal living in rural areas is that they dream of having a harmonious family life close to nature. They also believe in the communal philosophy. But a number of issues have to be dealt with almost immediately: If you don’t want to share all your meals with us, why do you live here? The question arises of how little or how much people need to share, and how much families can be on their own. Where is the boundary between the community and the family? People often have different views about this. And when conflicts arise, the narrow family tends to pull up the drawbridge and concentrate on itself. It may even leave the community to seek pastures new.”


Personal bios

Ida Wentzel Winther is an associate professor of educational anthropology at DPU, Aarhus University. Her research includes families, sibling relationships and homeliness. She teaches on the Master’s degree programme in educational anthropology, where she is also head of department.

Martin D. Munk is a professor of educational sociology at DPU, Aarhus University. His research includes the sustainability of families and social mobility. He teaches on the Master’s degree programme in educational sociology.


Background information 1

Who’s got a key? And who’s allowed to raid the fridge?

The family is a community of both inclusion and exclusion. Some people belong, while others don’t. In this connection, the key to the family home and the assumption that you can raid the fridge when you like have strong symbolic significance.

What generally happens when people split up is that one person leaves their key behind and takes their clothes with them. Being part of a family is a question of whether or not you have a key to the family home. The key is a symbol of your access to the family’s territory.

Children learn what they’re allowed to do within this territorial framework, who belongs, and who is permitted to do what. For instance, are you allowed to raid the fridge without asking anyone? If you aren’t, you’re not a full member of the family.

Source: Ida Wentzel Winther

 

Background information 2

37 types of family

Statistics Denmark has registered a total of 37 different types of family in Denmark. The commonest type? Couples with their own children (more than half of all families with children in Denmark). The second commonest type? Single mothers with children.

More married couples stay together than unmarried couples

Marriage seems to have an influence on whether families with children stay together. According to the statistics, married couples with children under 17 split up far less frequently than unmarried couples. In fact, the number of unmarried couples with their own children who split up is more than twice the number of married couples who do the same.

An increasing number of step-siblings

In 1980, 82 per cent of all 16-year-olds living at home lived with both their father and their mother. The corresponding figure today is 61 per cent. So during this period, 16-year-olds have gained an increasing number of step-siblings. In 1980, only three per cent of all 16-year-olds had step-siblings. In 2013 this had increased to 14 per cent

Source: Statistics Denmark

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