Pam Wheeler thinks about… The Good Family
I grew up in an extended family in Birmingham that was misguidedly scattered throughout the city in waves of slum clearance. My parents struggled with their marriage and parenting in the nuclear family structure enforced upon them. I moved hundreds of miles away at eighteen and never returned. An urgent personal need to search for understanding drove me to train and work professionally with children and families. I made cerebral progress but failed to be able to apply the learning to myself until I had married and given birth to a daughter. It mattered to me to become a good parent and to do so involved leaving the marriage and working hard to prevent my own painful experiences of being parented from being projected on to my child. I found support in friendships and discovered that having to effectively re-parent myself in order to become a good mother has been a healing process. I kept my distance but stayed in extremely limited contact with my family in Birmingham. I am gradually feeling confident enough to increase the contacts and I am contemplating a return to Birmingham after a gap of forty years. What follows summarises my thoughts about what constitutes a good family based on both personal experience and my profession.
To be good, a family need not live under one roof in a single household though reasonable geographical proximity is prerequisite.
It consists of at least three generations of people biologically related yet able to encompass members who are fostered, adopted or intimate friends.
It forms a network that combines resources to achieve key aims and protect shared interests while remaining tolerant and encouraging of individual expression, achievement and difference. It has permeable boundaries and is the resilient base-unit of a good society.
Notions of single-parent, two-parent or same gender partnership families and civil, religious or no marriage, amount to nothing more than rearranging the same furniture in the same interior space.
Members understand that appropriate commitment in the wealth and variety of relationships that exist within the good family yields maximum freedom consistent with personal security, happiness and fulfilment.
Strong boundaries between generations contribute to age-appropriate individual acceptance of responsibility for self and others, the good parenting of children, the supporting of their primary caregivers and the empowerment of members living with disabilities. Within and across generations, members of the good family respect, listen to, learn from and delight in each other.
Every child has one or two primary caregivers to whom she or he is special. Primary caregivers in the good family will have experienced skilled parenting when they were children or will have gained the wisdom to separate their own issues (arising from not having been well parented) when acting in the primary caregiver role. Primary caregivers offer unqualified love. They are consistently available over time and adapt their parenting to the different stages of child development, always facilitating the growth of self-esteem, confidence, special interests and aptitudes, social responsibility, and the capacity for self-sufficiency in the child onwards through adulthood. The good family supports primary caregivers and all adults take active secondary responsibility for the welfare of every child.
Two adults may benefit from being special to each other, taking a particular interest in each other’s well-being, sharing their deepest emotions and innermost thoughts and expressing their sexuality. Sustaining commitment through the turbulence caused by ongoing personal growth and development and the changing needs of each other, also the weathering of crises over time, strengthens the benefits to be gained from such partnerships. They may further thrive through sharing the primary caregiving role towards a child or children. In the good family such partnerships are supported and prevented from being overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations or excessive exclusivity.
The good family does not define a member by any disability or particular strength she or he possesses. All are recognised as equal in terms of basic human needs.
The good family is the repository of learning from preceding generations. It does not become fearful or rejecting when a member faces death. Instead it provides the mutual support necessary to survive and mature through the shared experience of loss, and celebrates the memory of those who die.
The good family thrives best in the good society.