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Michael Rosen on keeping it in the family

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
Why do we only have one word for the many complex forms and relationships that make up a family? asks Michael Rosen
Issue 2043
 (Pic: Tim Sanders)
(Pic: Tim Sanders)

When I run for leadership of either the Labour or Tory Party (either will do), please remind me to gas on about the family.

Send me briefing notes on why and how the family solves everything.

Then I can repeat these over and over again in the hope that enough people in marginal constituencies will think that I’m worth voting for, for me to win power.

The PR creeps and consultants who swarm around political parties seem to have done polls and surveys which tell them that talking family stuff is warm and comforting.

In fact, it’s a lie and the reason why it’s a lie is because of language. Language is the main way in which we divide up the world into categories. We use words to distinguish between this or that creature, this or that building, this or that feeling.

You only have to speak more than one language to discover very quickly that an enormous amount of these classifications depend on the culture you come from. In English we have the word “owl” and most of us know that an owl is one of those birds that flies about at night going tu-whit tu-whoo.

Then, if we’re a bit more interested in such things, we open a book and find out that there are different kinds of owl (barn owls and brown owls and so on) and some of them don’t go tu-whit, tu-whoo at all.

Cross the channel and you find that in France they’ve got several different words for owl. In everyday speech people don’t have to add a word like “barn” or “brown” to distinguish between owls.

Now consider the word “family”. We use it to describe every living set-up from the royal family, the Beckhams, and Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie, through to people living in the direst poverty.

So what the word does is obscure some crucial differences between the ways in which people live together and provide for themselves.

The palaces that monarchs and film stars live in are stuffed with servants. All the jobs that most people in the world do themselves – cleaning, cooking, washing, wiping kids’ bums, getting up for them in the night, taking them to school, talking to them and so on – are carried out mostly by other people.

Compare the lives of rich parents with poor parents, rich kids and poor kids and you find completely different patterns of life, different day to day events, different relationships, and different kinds of work.

You really aren’t talking about the same kind of living arrangement at all. And yet we only have the one word for it – “family”.

Now this has several consequences. When David Cameron and the like start talking up family life, they’re not doing it in order to encourage the aristocracy and the super-rich to stay together, have breakfast together and go to the seaside together.

They say it purely and simply to police the lives of the poor.

And yet, they do so, without acknowledging the massive difficulties poor people face, the mountains of unassisted work required in order to live as a family.

So, just as the mountains of assisted work that the super-rich have at their disposal is conveniently invisible, so the unassisted work of the poor goes largely without acknowledgment, recognition or help.

At the very moment, a politician sounds off about families needing to stay together, the parents in millions of families are working long hours, miles from home to pay their massive rents and mortgages.

And yet if you want safe, contented, clean, well-fed kids, this too takes hours and hours a week of shopping, washing, cleaning, helping and so on.

If you have no, or very little, assistance, the strain is immense.

Everyone knows that in the face of this mountain of repetitive and often boring work, it’s very hard for the two parents to go on giving each other comfort, care and love. They ask, when, where and how are they supposed to find the time and space for that too.

And when people start to feel isolated and uncomforted or that their hours of work goes unnoticed and unappreciated, sometimes it can feel like it doesn’t make sense to carry on in the set-up you find yourself in.

Inevitably, some people will end up blaming each other, rather than being able to live with the fact that it’s the system that’s largely responsible for driving the wedge between them.

And then on top of this, you have some toff (without his army of servants in sight) coming on the TV telling you that you should stay in your family.

He doesn’t say, “When I come to power, I will offer voluntary, universal, free professional childcare from the cradle up until the first year of fulltime school.” He doesn’t say, “I will guarantee that every school is staffed with trained people running high quality after-school clubs and activities.”

No, that would cost money, and it would mean altering the priorities of the whole system.

That would be instead of waging war in other people’s countries and ordering up new and useless nuclear weapons, and supporting billionaires to run the world as they think fit.

You’d have to start thinking about how we could all live better and more fulfilled lives in whatever living set-up suits us best.

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