May 15 is the United Nations’ International Day of Families
The coronavirus has put enormous pressures on all of us as persons, and on the groups and institutions to which we belong. It has been an affliction. The response to the measures taken to address it has been mixed. Sometimes it has been narrow and divisive, but more generally it has been extraordinarily good-willed, generous and patient. It has opened out to a far broader and balanced conversation about other areas of life that have been affected by the virus. One of these is the family. International Day of Families invites us to reflect inclusively and with broad sympathy on the family.
Reflection on the family is often conducted along narrow lines in which we are tempted to focus on one set of relationships and so neglect other relationships that are equally important for healthy family life. The family, for example, may be seen as a stable relationship, recognised as a marriage by state and church, between mother and father and the children they have borne together. Many people will rightly celebrate this as the Catholic ideal of a good marriage.
Others will appeal to dysfunctional families in dismissing this as a primitive and coercive form of association that inhibits individual growth. They might emphasise the freedom of the individuals involved as central to the family. Discussions about the family will then turn to which forms of relationship justify the name of family, and which are better. These are important questions, but they are not the questions asked first by people living with the daily challenges and opportunities of family life.
The consequences of coronavirus have made us attentive to the complexity and breadth of the relationships involved in families which struggle under its burdens. The economic and social changes brought by the virus have shown, for example, the consequences for the family of relationships involved in losing casual work, in working from home, in the expectation that all adult members of a family will work, in schooling, in recreation, staying in touch with extended family and friends, and educational institutions, of relationships with sport, television and social media, and in a house design that offers both common and personal space.
After coronavirus, the way in which these relationships have been shaped can no longer be taken for granted. We shall have experience of the disadvantages and advantages of other shapes we may not have considered. The merits of working from home and of home schooling will be considered as real possibilities of which we have experience and not simply as abstract ideas.
We shall see more clearly, too, how tightly the internal relationships within our families are connected to broader relationships with society. We shall have noticed how pressures of living together in a narrow space can be reflected in family violence and in mental illness. We shall find it difficult to reflect on the inner life of families without setting them against the social conditions in which they live. We shall know that if we wish to address antisocial behaviour we shall have to take account of the social problems that give birth to it.
At Jesuit Social Services, we work with young people from families which have been disadvantaged. This has often reflected lacks in the way our society cares for families.
International Day of Families is a time to celebrate the generosity and goodness displayed in families, and the resilience that finds life in the most unfavourable circumstances. It is also a day to ask how as a society we can best to accompany families as they prepare children for a full and generous life.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.