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Mary Kenny

Sometimes it takes an emergency to remind us how precious and sacrosanct family is

Mary Kenny


Touching reunion: Giovanni and Melia Famoso with their grandchildren

Touching reunion: Giovanni and Melia Famoso with their grandchildren

Edwina Currie

Edwina Currie


Touching reunion: Giovanni and Melia Famoso with their grandchildren

One of the most touching photographs published last week was that of two Italian grandparents, Melia and Giovanni Famoso of Milan, joyfully hugging their grandchildren after a two-month lockdown. It must represent such a universal sentiment of families reunited after this surreal and sometimes tormenting period we've been going through. For all the many tragedies, losses and economic anxieties, the one positive that has emerged is that the pandemic has brought families together (and kept them together!) And sometimes brought a new perspective on family life, too.

A British study has found that many people used the lockdown time to reassess their lives and consider what was important to them. Many people, surprisingly, came to like the fact they had less choice; this simplified life, clearing away much of the mental clutter. And a primary outcome of this general reassessment was that "family matters".

More touching still have been the many expressions of grief and sorrow expressed on social media at the passing of family members; the real sense of distress at a family not being able to attend a deathbed. And then, not being able to hold a proper funeral which wider circles of family and friends could attend.

The attachment to grandparents has been striking - and so moving: young women brokenhearted when a grandmother, in her eighties, has gone. I've worked with the obituary sections of the media, where, to be frank, the hardened obits editor tended to regard a death in a person's eighties as "a good innings". Yet I've seen a real tenderheartedness among the public at large towards the passing of older people, either from the virus or because (as happened to a friend of mine) cancer treatment was not available because of the risk of entering hospital.

I've seen appalled reactions from younger people to the notion that older people mightn't be given as much priority in medical treatment as anyone else. There's also a huge well of compassion for older people in care homes, so many of whom have died from the contagion.

Yes: family matters. And it takes an emergency, sometimes, to bring that home to us. Literally.

It's a funny turnaround, because the progressive view of the family has long been a negative one. "Family values" were said to stand for right-wing, reactionary forces of patriarchal tyranny and church-imposed shackles. From George Bernard Shaw to Herbert Marcuse - he who inspired the rebel generation of 1968 - liberal thinkers have deplored the family as the fountainhead of bourgeois oppression. Engels thought marriage was merely a device for transmitting property to legitimate heirs; Freud shone the light on "the dark places" of family life. Feminism has been particularly critical of the family as a patriarchal institution which exalted respectability at the cost of women's freedom and choices.

There is some justice to some of these charges. As we know, there can be domestic abuse, and child abuse, within family life. The obsession with family respectability drove many an unwed mother to misery. A late friend of mine could never tell her own father that she had given birth because he was such an upstanding pillar of the community: it was a grief to her that he never saw his grandchild. The former Derbyshire MP Edwina Currie was banished and rejected by her family because she married out of the Jewish faith (later, her mother relented; her father didn't). There is a whole canon of memoir and story about how restricting and controlling family life could be: the "misery memoir" specialises in its cruelty.

But the family has changed. It is very seldom, now, in Western society, a patriarchal institution (and even when it was "patriarchal", many women found a way to rule the roost psychologically). Marriage has become a much less prominent aspect of family life - marriages are later, and cohabitation much more frequent.

A priest friend who has pastored in inner city Dublin found that while christenings and First Communions are often important to young couples, marriage isn't a priority. I've observed the same phenomenon elsewhere too: I know a young couple for whom an Anglican christening of their child was really meaningful to them, but the wedding day can wait. I've also seen it with an Islamic young father: marriage to the mother was rejected as just a piece of paper, but the little lad had to be circumcised, to bring him into the circle of kinship.

"Marriage is inseparable from 'family', however it is defined," wrote Beatrice Gottlieb in The Family in the Western World. But that study was published in the 1990s, and values have altered. Family has usually meant kinship and a household, and that still holds mostly true, but it seems no longer to be defined by marriage. Attachment and commitment are the focus. So is continuity, judging by the enormous outpouring of love and devotion I've seen directed towards grandparents and great-grandparents.

The family has always changed: shape-shifting and re-forming over the centuries (Gottlieb points out that servants, even in quite modest households, were once part of the core "family"). It changes at key moments in human history - wars, famines and, indeed, pestilence. Perhaps 2020 was a key moment when we came to realise how meaningful it is, in whatever shape, to our emotional survival.

Belfast Telegraph