Recognising the modern family

Modern families are complicated and that can mean extra challenges.



This week two of my brothers have a birthday. Both are absent. My younger brother is living on the other side of the world and I haven’t seen him for over 10 years, except on Skype. My older [step]brother died in a car crash many years ago.

My family was not what you would call the typical nuclear family, as many aren’t these days. When I was growing up it was fairly unusual, at least in the places I lived. I remember trying to explain my family to a school friend with a bunch of twigs. I had two stepbrothers, one brother and four half brothers and sisters at the time.

Families are complicated things, especially when relations between the adults in them break down at various junctures along the way. The ground beneath your feet can be constantly shifting. Families form and reform with new people. Some you develop deep bonds with; others you never see again as soon as the adult relationship moves on. You can find yourself visiting a parent once a week, month, year, rather than seeing them every day. You can become an outsider to another family, treading on eggshells and trying to fit in, a part-time sibling to a bunch of new brothers and sisters. It’s all about adapting to change.

Like everything, there are positives as well as negatives, including an extended network in case of emergencies.

From a parental point of view, it is clearly far from easy. Even with regard to childcare, changing family structures require an ability to adapt to new circumstances and support to do so. Acquiring extra stepchildren or sharing custody of your own children mean not only complicated discussions with partners or ex-partners, but also with employers.

People’s lives are complicated and too often the support provided to parents focuses solely on the first year of the first child’s life.

Parenting magazines abound with miracle cures for sleep deprivation and weaning. After the weaning stage you are virtually on your own. Policy similarly seems intently focused on that first year and there is rarely discussion anywhere of the implications of having more than one child, let alone stepchildren.

That is the reason, I think, that parental networks at work seem to be popular in those larger employers that offer them. They tend to include sessions that cover a broad range of issues, including special needs, helping with homework, dealing with exam stress and mental health problems and so forth. Which is great, but they are only on offer in those companies which can afford to pay for them. The rest of us have to box and cox and get information and support where we can.

The very least that is needed is an understanding from employers and others that modern families are complex and often changing structures. I’ve seen through all the interviews I’ve done just how far a little bit of understanding goes towards motivating people at work. Recognising the reality of modern family life is a strength, not a weakness.

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