Once upon a time, and not so long ago, the family was regarded as a sacred institution. Marriage sealed a life-long bond between a man and a woman, the purpose of which was the procreation and rearing of their children. In recent decades, however, the family has taken a severe battering: rapid social and economic changes attendant upon the industrial and post-industrial revolutions have resulted in a disintegration of the traditional ‘extended’ family with its built-in emotional and social support systems, while architectural fads and fancies of town planners have turned our inner cities into psychiatric disaster areas by shattering the kinship networks that formerly held people together within distinctive territorial bounds. All this has coincided with widespread dissemination of the narcissistic belief that every individual has a right to personal fulfilment which transcends the vows of marriage and which justifies the termination of marriages in which such fulfilment can no longer be adequately found. As if this were not enough, the family has also come under ideological attack, being held responsible for the systematic exploitation of women and children and stigmatized as the cause of practically all the psychiatric ills that man is heir to. (Those interested in such polemics will find plenty of ammunition in the writings of Germaine Greer, David Cooper, Ronald Laing, Betty Frieden and Jane Howard. While gratefully acknowledging the validity of many of their insights, I stop short of any radical rejection of the family as an institution. To argue that families should be done away with because they cause neurosis seems to me about as logical as advocating the abolition of houses because people die in them, or the prohibition of breasts because women get cancer there. True, growing up in a particular family may make you neurotic, but the probability of being neurotic is far greater if you grow up with no family at all.)
However, despite this inimical barrage the family is still with us, albeit in its truncated ‘nuclear’ form of parents and dependent children. Indeed it shows remarkable resilience. It has even survived systematic attempts to dismantle it. In Soviet Russia, for example, soon after the 1917 Revolution, it was decided to free the family of all legal constraints: registration of marriages
was no longer obligatory, birth control was advocated and legal abortion made freely available on demand. Divorce was easy, free love was accepted, and no rules or regulations were tolerated concerning how couples should behave to one another or to their children. And yet, as Maurice Hindus records in his book Mother Russia (1943), the family remained. Its roots were never shaken and were never in danger of being torn out. Despite easy divorce, the right to free and frequent abortions, the overwhelming mass of Russian humanity, in the village almost all of them, fell in love, married, and even when they did not record the union in the registration office, they stayed married. They raised children. They built a home in the best way they could. Stripped of the family compulsions that their grandfathers had known, they chose of their own accord to continue the ancestral habit and tradition of family life.