LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Nuclear family - David & Tiana Rassam
with children Taymoor & Sienna
Clockwise: David , Taymoor, Tiana and Sienna
Date of photography: 26th March 2017
David and Tiana share their happy, comfortable home with their two children, a little boy and girl. Theirs is the classic ‘nuclear family’, the unit long perceived as the essential building block of a stable society. But might it have become something of an anachronism? Although the USA is often seen as a bastion of traditional family values and social mores, placing the nuclear family on some sort of ‘moral’ pedestal, it is interesting to note that in the twenty-first century, the supposedly superior, traditional nuclear family appears now to constitute a minority of households - roughly 24% now compared with 40% in 1970. Obviously, this would indicate that other family arrangements have become increasingly prevalent. However, this article should not be seen as some kind of veiled attack on the traditional concept of ‘the family’; rather, it aims to advance the notion that a variety of family units seem to work equally well and that forcing human beings into a ‘one size fits all’ mould is never a good idea.
The now-familiar term, ‘Nuclear Family’, was first used in English as late as 1941, to describe a family group that consisted only of a heterosexual couple and their dependent children, united by ties of marriage and parenthood, and recognised as a basic social unit. Rarely, in the 1940’s, would the parents in such a family have been unmarried - children born outside wedlock were still stigmatised as ‘bastards’ and illegitimacy attracted universal opprobrium. However, attitudes changed dramatically in the post-War years and these days, around a half of parents are not married. (The proportion of children born to unmarried mothers hit a record 47.5% in 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics, and this figure had risen dramatically from 25% in 1988, and a mere 11% in 1979. If this trend has indeed continued, which seems likely, it is the majority of children who are now being born ‘out of wedlock’.)
Recently, with the advent of same-sex marriage and gay adoption, the idea of a ‘nuclear family’ has been broadened even further and is now understood to include family units that comprise same-sex couples with adopted children as well as offspring who are biologically related to one or both parents. The nuclear family has long been viewed by many sociologists and politicians as the universal, basic component of social organisation, and yet anyone who looks a little deeper into history and anthropology will quickly discover that this narrow definition is largely a Western invention, greatly promoted by the Victorians (with the ‘Royal Family’ as an archetype) by social conservatives, and by most faith groups. More recently, it has been promoted especially aggressively by so-called ‘familialists’, social conservatives who form part of the Christian evangelical pro-family lobby, especially in the USA, but who exert influence around the globe.
David and Tiana Rassam kindly welcomed me into their home to photograph them and their two delightful children, Taymoor, aged five, and little Sienna, who is just over a year old; I wanted to capture their images because they are precisely what we have thought of as a traditional nuclear family. Whilst they might at first glance seem thoroughly conventional, it soon emerged that growing out of their own experience, they have developed views on this kind of family unit (the unit seen by many as the ideal social building block) that are rather more complex and altogether more interesting. A professional couple, they married about nine years ago and decided to have the children they wanted sooner rather than later. David works at a senior level in the petrochemical industry and the family now live in a large, handsome Edwardian mansion flat in West London.
Once the photography is over and while Tiana is keeping the children happily occupied, I interview David, first trying to gauge how he perceives his own family and how he sees the different family arrangements favoured by others. A highly articulate man who has an interesting and unusual background, David chooses his words carefully: “I was born in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, living there for six years before my family relocated to London. I have to confess that, given the circumstances, I have been back but once, and then only for a short visit. Iraq might be my home country but I am less familiar with it than I am with England. Although our family was Roman Catholic, we always felt well-integrated into the Baghdad society of those days. We were a sort of protected community, as were a number of other minorities - at that time, Baghdad was genuinely a lively melting pot of faiths and ethnicities. I don’t think we ever felt like outsiders and you could say that our family was part of the then Baghdad establishment. While my family and Tiana’s were connected in many ways, with much in common, the two of us didn’t actually meet until we were both adult professionals.” David continues: “Although we may have been born outside the UK, we both feel well-integrated into this great city where we have made our home and the culture here in Britain; however, we have our own, unique cultural roots too and these also influence the way we interpret the world around us. I am a Catholic but I wouldn’t consider myself as especially religious; we don’t, as a family, go to Mass every Sunday and in this respect we do differ from my parents' more observant generation.”
Asked about his personal feelings towards the increasing variety of family arrangements now obtaining in Western Europe, David replies: “Well, this might be seen as a controversial answer to what is a complex question, but though I am personally accepting of others, I do feel strongly that the conventional nuclear family structure is most likely to be the best framework for raising children and future citizens.” It might be said that David and Tiana’s own family arrangements are indeed traditional: he is the sole breadwinner while Tiana, whose own career is ‘on hold’, stays at home looking after the children. But David continues, elaborating his answer: “I can well imagine how difficult it must be for couples who both work, and who return home exhausted, to try to give proper attention to the children and to spend some quality time with them; that will be a hard task indeed and one that will inevitably put a strain upon the marriage too. So in that respect, I feel we are very fortunate.” Fortunate and unusual, perhaps, for such family arrangements are increasingly atypical, with a great many professional couples both working and leaving their childcare responsibilities, at least in part, to childminders, nannies, au pairs and nursery schools. The increasing financial pressures on families have perhaps been mostly responsible for this change, but the desire of professional women not to forego their careers entirely for childrearing has also been influential.
Now it was David’s turn to amuse Taymoor and Sienna, and Tiana kindly takes some time to talk to me. “Like David’s, my parents were also Catholics: my father was Iraqi but my mother had Lebanese and Italian parents, though she too grew up in in Baghdad. She went on to study the Arts in Paris and my parents met when my father was working in Germany, indeed I am actually German born. When my father’s job took him to the UK, we lived in Berkshire and I studied Interior Design in Brighton. I then worked for a number of years for a prestigious London architectural firm, specialising in the design of high-end hotels. From my mother, I clearly inherited some kind of creative flair and I still paint whenever time permits. Indeed, the painting of a male ballet dancer, hanging on the wall behind us in the photograph, was one of my commissions. I have always felt very close to my parents and unfortunately, because they now live in Dubai, I sometimes feel the distance between us acutely.”
Tiana continued: “During my first pregnancy, I entertained the idea of running an online business but I soon discovered that raising children is basically a full-time task and nothing can really prepare you for it.” She admitted to feeling quite lonely when raising Taymoor, her first child, missing the company of other adults and the daily contact with colleagues, an experience shared with many new mothers. “My mother did come over a number of times and she helped me a great deal but the distance is not inconsiderable and, of course, they have their own lives to lead. And you do learn to manage; the second time round, with Sienna, I had more experience and was perhaps more resilient, having already developed the necessary skills to cope.”
I asked her how she felt about the present evolution of the nuclear family model and she replied unhesitatingly: “I have largely grown up in liberal Western Europe and, despite her own background, my mother herself had a very European outlook on life. You could say that though my parents were conservative with a small ‘c’, they were not illiberal; they trusted my maturity and allowed me to travel and explore Europe unaccompanied, so I don’t have an old-fashioned mentality. However, I must say that I am more than happy within my own family arrangements and I feel that, for us, it provides the best possible environment for raising our children. And yet, at the same time, I have the greatest respect and admiration for mothers who are managing on their own - actually, it sometimes seems to me a little bit as if I were doing it on my own too! My husband works extremely long hours, leaving home before dawn and not coming back until after the children are in bed, asleep. I am also well aware of the many families who are forced to manage on a significantly smaller budget than we have, and I have great respect for how successfully they manage.”
Tiana continued: “In the school my son attends, there is a child from a same-sex family and I do admire their strength. It is a private school where some people are very old-fashioned in their outlook and, behind the polite smiles, there are clearly signs of judgement and disapproval. Now that I have my own children, I see clearly, and I do most genuinely believe, that all children need is love and attention, lots of it, and I don’t think that this can only come from a mother and a father. Children will respond positively to anyone who loves and cares for them, irrespective of whether they are connected to them biologically. I can well imagine that some people might disagree with this, but it is my considered opinion as a mother. To me, what is essential is that children have the chance to develop within a caring and loving environment - after all, what sometimes lies behind the façade of a perfectly normal nuclear family can be seriously dysfunctional, sometimes even horrific, with parents who abuse their children or whose behaviour towards one another is disruptive to any sort of happy family life. Such damage in the early stages of a child’s development is very destructive, and dysfunctional families tend to produce dysfunctional adults.”
In conclusion, Tiana stated quite firmly: “I was raised as a Catholic and, as a family, we observed all the major festivals of the Church and attended all the major religious events; with this sort of background, clearly, David and I both aim to raise our children with good morals and to see them grow up into good people. But no, I never have been, nor do I intend to be, ruled by religion; I certainly shan’t be having another half dozen children,” she concludes with a smile.
Having mentioned that the USA is often seen as a bastion of traditional family values (ie placing the nuclear family on some sort of moral pedestal) it is interesting to note that in the twenty-first century, the supposedly traditional nuclear family appears now to constitute a minority of households (roughly 24%) compared with 40% in 1970. Obviously, this must indicate that other family arrangements have become more prevalent. Nevertheless, social conservatives continue to oppose these continuing trends in society, and the increasing number of alternative kinds of family unit; they see them as undermining patriarchal authority and remain firmly convinced that the traditional nuclear family is the essential primary unit of society.
It is worth reminding ourselves that although attitudes towards conventional marriage started to change in the decades after the Second World War, the law continued to make divorce difficult right up to 1969. Nowadays, the popular press and the TV soaps often present a rather bleak image of modern family life in Britain and they tend to promote the myth that the nuclear family of the 1950’s and before was a world of almost prelapsarian bliss - a man and a woman married for life, raising their children in a happy home. The reality was a good deal harsher than that, of course. While many were indeed happy within their nuclear families, thereby creating good environments for raising children, thousands of couples were trapped in loveless, ill-matched unions that would prove deeply dysfunctional and disruptive for their children. Changes in the UK divorce laws between 1970 and 1990 (up to then, more restrictive here than in many European countries) have led to a divorce rate that is now the highest in the world.
Tiana’s opinions, expressed in an earlier paragraph, are echoed in the 2014 survey by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen); this survey observed that: “Children in single parent families can be just as happy as those with both sets of parents, and that the quality of the relationship with the primary carer matters most, rather than the number of parents.” Work by Cardiff University also showed that grandparents are doing their significant bit in helping with raising children - one in four working families relied on grandparents for childcare. Furthermore, research carried out by the University of Cambridge has, perhaps startlingly, suggested that, “gay fathers have more interaction with their children and their kids tend to have busier social lives when compared to a traditional family.”
As in all the subjects covered in this project, the aim here is to maintain a neutral position but also to draw attention to falsehood and myth. As such, the above should not be seen as some kind of attack on the traditional concept of ‘The Family’; rather, it aims to confirm the notion that a variety of family units work equally well and forcing human beings into a ‘one size fits all’ mould is never a good idea.
I take the liberty of adding to this piece an exceptional contribution to the debate by George Monbiot. In an essay entitled, ‘Kin Hell’, Monbiot writes:
The nuclear family, as idealised today, was an invention of the Victorians, but it bore little relation to the family life we are told to emulate. Its development was driven by economic rather than spiritual needs, as the Industrial Revolution made manufacturing in the household inviable. Much as the Victorians might have extolled their families, “it was simply assumed that men would have their extramarital affairs and women would also find intimacy, even passion, outside marriage” (John R Gillis, ‘A World of Their Own Making’, 1996) and often with other women. Gillis links the twentieth century’s attempt to find intimacy and passion only within marriage - and the impossible expectations this raises - to the rise in the rate of divorce.
Children’s lives were characteristically wretched: farmed out to wet nurses, sometimes put to work in the factories and mines, beaten, neglected, often abandoned as infants. In his book, ‘A History of Childhood’, Colin Heywood reports that, “The scale of abandonment in certain towns was simply staggering”, reaching one-third or a half of all the children born in some European cities. Street gangs of feral youths caused as much moral panic in late nineteenth-century England as they do today.
Conservatives often hark back to the golden age of the 1950s. But in the 1950s, John Gillis shows, people of the same persuasion believed they had suffered a great moral decline since the early twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, people fetishised the family lives of the Victorians. The Victorians invented this nostalgia, looking back with longing to imagined family lives before the Industrial Revolution.
In the Telegraph, Christina Odone maintains that, “Anyone who wants to improve lives in this country knows that the traditional family is the key.” But the tradition she invokes is imaginary. Far from this being, as cultural conservatives assert, a period of unique moral depravity, family life and the raising of children is, for most people, now surely better in the West than at any time in the past 1,000 years.
The conservatives’ supposedly moral concerns turn out to be nothing but an example of the old-age custom of first idealising and then sanctifying one’s own culture. The past they invoke is fabricated from their own anxieties and obsessions. It has nothing to offer us.
[ This essay appears in: How Did We Get Into This Mess?, published by Verso, 2016 ]
Text edited: 16 April 2017
Page modified: 2nd April 2019