Modern Family: Has family life gone forward or backwards in 2016?
PUBLISHED: 14:28 15 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:28 15 August 2016
Sybilla Hart, modern mum of four and Essex Life columnist, looks at the changes in the trends of family life and asks if the latest generation of parents have taken a step forward or a step back
If a mother with small children was to ask someone from her parents’ or grandparents’ generation what the single biggest change in family life is in 2016, it would surely be the rise of women working full time. Modern statistics show that only one woman in ten now stays at home to raise a family. Maintaining the lifestyle that us parents enjoyed as children is nowadays a real challenge and we can probably hold rising house prices largely accountable for this cultural shift.
My own mother didn’t work (or at least she didn’t do any paid work), but she certainly put all of her energy into organising the home and me and my two siblings. When we were young we never went abroad on holiday, something that is much more readily done nowadays, instead we went to North Cornwall for three blissful weeks every summer. As far as I can remember it never rained and we spent our time crabbing and swimming in the sea.
My mother was meticulous when it came to planning our time. She would have a large diary with everyone’s respective play dates noted down as well as trips to local wildlife parks and castles such as Slimbridge near Stroud or Sudeley Castle near Cheltenham. My parents preference for holidays at home have definitely inspired our desire to stay put with small children and enjoy the local delights of places such as Colchester Castle and RHS Hyde Hall instead of schlepping on a plane with toddlers, nappies, buggies et al.
Daily Mail columnist, Bel Mooney, wrote a fascinating article recently echoing my very own thoughts. Feminism with its promise that women can have it all could now be charged with two very damaging cultural trends. Firstly, the assumption that work equals value undermines the important work that full time mothers do. Raising the next generation at home is a valuable contribution to society. Secondly, rising numbers of stressed working women who supposedly ‘have it all’ are increasingly throwing the towel in and dumping their jobs. Every circumstance is different, but there are definite cracks in the supposed perfect model of the working mother.
Nowadays men tend to share childcare and household tasks, easing the burden on working mums. My own father is amazed at how Charlie, my husband, can successfully put the children to bed and then cook dinner for everyone, no questions asked. My father, I should mention, excels in other areas such as playing endless games of football and darts with his grandson. But it is not only the fact that women are working that men are domestically more capable, modern life has become more informal (just look at the rise in kitchen diners replacing the archaic dining room). I know plenty of men who do a full working week only to take the children swimming on a Saturday morning by preference. I am pleased to report that it has become fashionable to be a hands on father. Men who help with childcare and household tasks are a boon for modern society and relationships. I must confess that I call in Charlie to assist with toxic areas, like an iPad that refuses to be relinquished by its junior owner or a megawatt brat fight that has escalated out of control. Unlike their forebears, the modern man tends to have his sleeves firmly rolled up in all that is family life. And this is a necessity given that grandparents who once lived nearby often no longer do, and a grandmother’s help with bringing up the children is not nowadays the norm.
Returning to the prickly subject of screen time, this has become quite literally a minefield to navigate. Given that computers are everywhere (and don’t show any signs of going anywhere) it is extremely challenging for parents to set limits, particularly when life and work is busy in any case. Some parents set very firm boundaries (and good on them) whereas other people tend to be more flexible. Having had my fingers burnt with my son (who is computer mad), I have tried to deter my two daughters aged four and six from too much screen time to the point where I am pretty sure they have no clue how to work a computer – not exactly a positive outcome either in this modern age! As a child I was never ‘into’ computers but I do remember my siblings playing Tetrus for hours on end. The screen monster is no toddler; he has been around for a good three decades. Memories of my mother battling with my brother over Call of Duty when he was meant to be studying for his A Levels still spring to mind.
The other added dimension to modern family life is that of the rise in tutoring and after school activities. Some parents are tempted to book in activities every day after school and at weekends so that children aren’t bored, but experts are increasingly of the opinion that children need to be bored as this is how both resilience and creativity are borne. Personally I try to take a balanced approach and recently signed my eldest daughter up for Rainbows (junior Brownies) in a bid to facilitate some sort of after school activity. It turns out that our daughter Beatrice would infinitely prefer to have a friend over, go to Jump Street and do some sort of class every day after school, but though that might keep her out of trouble, it would send me round the bend (not to mention all of the driving).
As my friend from neighbouring Pebmarsh (who is nearly 70) pointed out, children were often one of many in a family. According to her, mothers simply didn’t have the time to go to work – before all the mod cons the day was spent washing, cooking and cleaning. To have six children back then was not unusual and, according to another friend of mine who is in her 60s, this was a good thing as children learnt how to get along with each other and wait their turn. The older children looked after the younger ones and presumably the necessity to get to poetry recitals and hockey matches fell by the wayside, didn’t feature or didn’t seem so important in those days. Rather, growing up together in a ramshackle, carefree style was the best childhood most children could hope for. It would appear that less definitely was more in those days. By accident and on purpose that is precisely the childhood my own brood is getting. Isaac, Beatrice, Florence and Celestia aren’t strangers to fast food and iPads, but I realise that I am always steering things back to basics. The more things are in line with a 50s style childhood the better, and with that comes a good dollop of boredom and not a foreign holiday in sight.