Warm, fuzzy families exist in many forms

Melbourne artist Tai Snaith had a children's book published last year about the Australian family. In it, she used indigenous animals as a metaphor for different versions of the contemporary household. It sounds kitsch, but there we are - stylishly so - in The Family Hour in Australia as corroboree frogs, numbats, eastern spotted quolls, hairy-nosed wombats or, inevitably, kangaroos, platypuses and koalas.

Melbourne artist Tai Snaith had a children's book published last year about the Australian family. In it, she used indigenous animals as a metaphor for different versions of the contemporary household. It sounds kitsch, but there we are - stylishly so - in The Family Hour in Australia as corroboree frogs, numbats, eastern spotted quolls, hairy-nosed wombats or, inevitably, kangaroos, platypuses and koalas.

A clever, fact-based work, the book gently questions what "family" means, why we steadfastly separate parenting roles by gender, and what makes a distinctly Australian family. Leafing through Snaith's witty, retro-tinged drawings, we might reflect on what we all know to be true, that the stereotypical nuclear family is only part of the story.

The National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has recently corroborated that idea: it reported many changes to Australian families, key among them that more Australian households now have a female breadwinner, that the number of blended and stepfamilies has doubled since the 1980s, and that 65 per cent of Australians support marriage equality for same-sex couples.

With more older first-time mothers, a steady drop in marriage rates and a rise in single-parent families, the results seemed to emphasise that there is no such thing as an "average" family: blended, single-parented, childless, mixed-culture, grand-parented, mixed-race or same-sex parented families are abundant enough that perhaps it's time we stopped thinking altogether about the traditional versus non-traditional binary.

They are all just families.

That is why, in her book, Snaith draws group households (sugar gliders often have six or seven mothers and fathers in one nest with the bubs), single mums (female frill-necked lizards and echidnas are among many that go it alone), single dads (weedy seadragons), nuclear families (Gouldian finches or platypuses) and two-dad families (a quarter of black male swans pair up with each other for life, sometimes sitting on unwanted eggs and raising cygnets).

The recent issue of the Journal of Australian Studies, too, explores many variations of family, including its darker sides. While the articles in the special family-themed edition released last month investigate the very idea of this basic social unit in Australia, from the 18th century to today, one of its editors, Dr Lisa Featherstone, a University of Newcastle historian, says many people might be surprised to find that so-called alternative families are not just a feature of the past couple of decades - they've been with us since Europeans arrived (not to mention indigenous variations of family that have been here vastly longer).

Featherstone, whose career has included much research on gender, reproduction and sexuality, says Australian families were very elastic constructions until the mid-20th century. "One hundred years ago, families were quite blended, complex and flexible," she says. "People adopted the children of relatives or others more readily, as there was no IVF or technologies to overcome infertility; they lived with extended family, apprentices or servants; and they were all crammed into tiny spaces together.

"Now we are reverting to the idea that families don't have to be simply blood relatives living together."

After colonisation, she says, families were commonly affected by low life-expectancy among adults and high death rates during childbirth. "Because people used to die much earlier in the past, they didn't live in the same partnership for their whole lives - especially if a mother dies in childbirth: very quickly a new mother has to be found for that infant."

Likewise, men dying in the course of their work - not uncommon - meant a new breadwinner had to be found or the family would face insurmountable poverty.

It was in the 1950s that the idea of the nuclear family started to take root, giving us enduring assumptions about the "typical" family. It is little wonder: war had thoroughly disrupted society at every level to such an extent that there was deep anxiety about the way forward.

Featherstone says suburbia came to the rescue as politicians, media and social commentators drew back to the family as the core of what Australian society must be. And women, despite finding new emancipation and identity in the workforce during the war, also now wanted security. The family kitchen looked pretty good.

"Even though [government] certainly promoted the nuclear family as part of the postwar reconstruction, I think it came from individuals as well," Featherstone says.

"They had lived through these crises, they were expecting another war - and the potential for it to be a nuclear war - and another depression. One of the ways to counter that anxiety was to retreat into the suburban domestic space."

In that space, an idealised family consisted of "a respectable, working husband and a stay-at-home wife, busy with her duties as mother, hostess, and consumer", she says. That has certainly changed - as last week's NCSEM report about more breadwinning mothers illustrated.

Is there an ideal family today? Despite the images we see in much advertising, Featherstone's co-editor, Dr Yorick Smaal of Griffith University, says we often construct our sense of family - whichever way they are constituted - from a mixture of our own experiences and how they intersect with culture's dominant versions of kinship.

"The family shapes our life experiences from early on," he says, "whether that is the traditional nuclear, single-parent or same-sex, indigenous, immigrant, adopted or even an institutional family. And part of that is a lottery.

"Ideas of family are central to how we define ourselves. It is a unit of cohesion that helps order the world in which we live. When those kinds of relationships start to break down, it can be very difficult to make sense of the world around us at the individual and social level."

One paper in the Journal makes that sort of breakdown explicit. Examining paternal child murder in Australia, Griffith University research fellow Amanda Kaladelfos shows how Australian men have historically been so entrenched in a breadwinner role, moving beyond it has seemed impossible to them.

In extreme cases, the results are terrible: her study of NSW child murder convictions between 1855 and 1954 records many instances of men killing their families because of incredible stress when they lost a job or suffered other financial disaster.

It is no surprise that Featherstone says there is very little historical research on how fathers actually parent and engage with the children. "The father is an absent figure, other than being investigated in the role as breadwinner and provider," she says. "And when they fail to be these things, it can have dramatic consequences on their psyches. Their role is so confined that if you fail as a provider, you fail as a father."

That sense of being constricted in their role might still be true for many men but at the Australian Institute of Family Studies much is being done to deploy early intervention programs, strengthen relationships and help parents with their demanding family responsibilities.

Set up in 1980, the AIFS has always promoted a broad definition of family and emphasised function - how families actually operate - rather than whether they are nuclear families or otherwise.

In the institute's long-term "longitudinal" study of Australian children, for example, a strong focus has been on measures around warmth and the quality of relationships between partners, and between parents and their children.

Such measures are used to assess how children's wellbeing and outcomes in life are affected.

"Where you have cohesive families with a lot of warmth and shared activities and less hostile and conflicted parenting, and less tension between parents, the children do better," director Professor Alan Hayes says. "Surprise, surprise. And where there is little involvement by parents or where there is conflict as well as some warmth, the children don't do as well."

As he says, the emphasis is on the quality of relationships. It takes the pressure off families - and parents of both genders - thinking they have to fulfil some particular image of perfection. After all, families today aren't only exposed to the sorts of posters Family First put up before the recent federal election - images of white, smiling, pristine quartets of mum, dad, son and daughter. Parents and children get to see and hear of all sorts of families at the after-school pick-up, the childcare centre, the workplace and at the shopping mall. They also watch different versions of family in television shows such as Househusbands, Modern Family and The New Normal.

And they can read to their children books about families of sugar gliders, corroboree frogs and male glossy black swans being celebrated for doing a wonderful job caring for their many interesting, nuanced, doing-their-best families.

The Family Hour in Australia by Tai Snaith (Thames & Hudson) rrp $24.95. Journal of Australian Studies, published by Taylor and Francis.

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