Once upon a time, the family…

In 1980, on a flight from New Delhi to Mumbai (then Bombay), I was seated next to a very nice young Swiss couple in their late twenties. We got into a conversation, and I asked them whether they were tourists.

Yes and no, they replied: they were actually on the way to Goa, where they had a little place that had very bare modern facilities. They drew water from a well, had an outside bathroom, and cooked on a wooden fire. They were both artists, and spent six months of the year in Goa, painting. They then took their frames to Zurich, where they were from and had an apartment, and sold them over the next six months. With the money they thus made, they had enough to sustain them for the Goa stay.

And children? – I asked. No, they replied. We have both decided that we don’t want to have any children, and that we will live the rest of our lives in the way we have told you.

A few years ago I met, after more than three decades, a lady friend from my university days. As we exchanged notes about our respective situations, she told me about how on a visit to North America to see her daughter who had gone to study there, the latter presented her with her partner, with whom she was living, another woman. It came as a shock to her, which she could not put up with for a good while – though her husband had no objection, saying that as a father he loved his daughter and would not reject her. Recently, we had a conversation again, this time after a couple of years. Her husband had passed, and at the end of last year she had returned from playing grandma for three months: her same-sex couple daughter had adopted a baby.

I know about a couple in America, both males and gay, who have a beautiful and chirpy two-year old girl, Carol, and are planning to adopt another child soon. One of them is a doctor, a paediatrician, who can be quite busy with night duties. No problem: the other one is a journalist who works mainly from home, and therefore the care of the daughter is assured.

Several years ago, a 23-year old lady came to consult me for a back problem. As part of the medical history I had to ask her about her periods, whether she was married, had any children and so on. Twins, she said, one year old now. Oh, I remarked, that’s nice. She had come with her mother, so I asked, what about your husband? I am divorced, she replied, almost nonchalantly. Même les jumeaux n’ont pas pu sauver le marriage? (even the twins have not been able to save the marriage?), I queried. Non, ça n’a pas marché (no, things didn’t work out), she answered in the same neutral tone. She was a pleasant woman, had completed secondary education to School Certificate level, and was not employed. I could not help entertaining a thought about how the future would unfold for her and her two babies.

Change is the law of creation

As we go through life, through our personal and professional encounters we get a glimpse of the changes that society is undergoing. There are national and international statistics that are collected regularly and give us a more comprehensive picture of societal transformations that are taking place in several aspects of our lives, but statistics of course do not tell the whole human story. For that we have to fall back upon the individual narratives, and in many ways the medical profession is a barometer of social mores. And then, down the years, we discover that certain situations, which we come across in the isolation of the consultation, are actually part of evolving trends or, as the neologism goes – that’s also an evolution! – are ‘trending’.

Things are different, no longer what they used to be – for change is the law of not only life, but the whole of creation. That is what the term ‘maya’ in Hinduism signifies, that which does not stay the same and is meant to undergo change – not ‘illusion’ as it is usually and wrongly translated into. So people, things, phenomena keep changing, becoming different. Whether the change is good or bad, that’s another issue, but nothing remains the same as time goes by. Time engulfs everything into its embrace.

And we are seeing this in relationships as well, especially the one that has been idealized as the preserver of societal integrity and the vehicle of transmission of certain values that many cultures hold very dear – namely the family. As the examples above illustrate, it too is changing, we cannot say – objectively – whether for better or worse. However, in keeping with an overall paradigm, the truth will lie somewhere in between: there will be a mixture of the good and the bad, depending on which perspective one assumes, and it will take a whole generation at the very earliest to have a more correct idea of what is what. Meanwhile, there are patterns that have already emerged, and that in post-industrial societies at least are now definitively established.

The ideal being replaced by the convenient

Thus, although the traditional family of ‘mother, father and children’ remains predominant, the notion of household now has to accommodate single-parent, group or shared (related but not married e.g. brother-sister) and same-sex categories, all of which are on the rise. And so too live-in couples, often for several years prior to marriage, and even have children before marriage. So that there are first marriages now that are accompanied by the couple’s children – all very beautiful one must say, why not, if all parties that are involved agree to the arrangement.

I know at least one such case personally locally, where the couple have a kid who has started school, and the families on both sides after a frank discussion have accepted this relationship for the past five years. The woman stays at the house of her future in-laws with her future husband, and the child has doting grandparents on both sides. The civil marriage is to be performed shortly, and the religious marriage is planned for next year. Voilà!

A related aspect is the postponement of marriage to a later age by both men and women, as education and career take precedence over family, so that the average age of first marriage has also increased to the late twenties as the preferred age band, but a significant proportion still takes place in the thirties too. Establishing oneself in a career and financial independence in the case of women in particular has played an important role in the changed marriage dynamics and consequently the family too. Further, there is more equality expected in the relationship, especially about performing household chores and child care, since in a majority of cases both husband and wife are working.

Whether that expectation is met or not very much depends on the individual couple. My own take on this has always been that once the thrill of romantic love that brings the couple together has flown out of the window in the face of the daily realities, if it is replaced by a mutual ‘care and share’ attitude then it should be smooth running for the family. I have also always felt that in such a fundamental commitment, it is not a question of meeting each other halfway or 50%: it is about going all the way, because this relationship is not about mere equality but about an enriching complementarity.

It is a fact too that divorce has become more frequent, facilitated in jurisdictions which allow no-fault divorce and divorce by mutual consent. Some analysts have observed that divorce is not always a bad thing, and opinion will surely be divided on this.

It is in the 1970s that these changes began to take place, when ‘the sexual revolution introduced new ideals about love, sex and relationships. Sex could be separated from love and marriage. No longer bound to life-long monogamy, sex could be viewed as “a rewarding form of play”.’ Further, ‘this loosening of the bounds of sex and marriage was enabled by significant social, medical and political changes: the contraceptive pill, safer access to abortion, no-fault divorce. The new attitudes to women, reproduction and marriage that underpinned and emerged the sexual revolution also altered understandings of the family’.

In this age of globalisation, whether all societies are fated to travel the same path of the new configurations of the ‘family’ is a matter that only the future will tell. But as in many human situations, who knows that there may be a return to more traditional ways as a backlash against the too loose structures that we are witnessing? We leave this to future generations…

RN Gopee

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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