The Irish family is not in crisis, but neither is it in full health. There are social and ideological currents that affect all of us; if we try to understand them, we will have a better grasp of what is happening, thus lessening our chances of being helpless and hapless victims of change
Many of us want to be seen as “progressive” in relation to all current trends, whatever they may be; conservatism remains deeply unfashionable. So, we are shy about voicing our doubts about some of today’s ideologies. One disconcerting, but pervasive and decades-old trend in Western (including Irish) thinking can be summarised as follows: “The family is oppressive, marriage is a trap and children are a burden”. Public opinion does not seem to agree, but such thinking, when combined with a conviction that religion should be confined to the private sphere, affects all of us and leaves us ill-equipped to deal with modern problems in the family. We are expected to be open to anything, but sure of nothing.
Parents lament the diminishing length of childhood and the difficulties of bringing children through their adolescent years in an over-sexualised society. The consumerism now fundamental to our culture makes their task even more difficult, as does the anti-institutional and the anti-hierarchical spirit of our times.
A prevailing negativity gives public voice to those who are against whatever is seen as “established”, be it the family, the government, business, and, of course, the churches. Marriage and fatherhood have both been devalued in Western culture, so vast numbers of children have been brought up in confused and insecure environments, at a time when the West has never been richer. These developments, and their multiple effects, are deplored, but commentators are hesitant about analysing the underlying causes. Therefore, they are uncomfortable with the present Irish government’s clear recognition of the role religion plays in society. This is seen as so regressive that it is better not mentioned at all, whereas it is, in fact, an attempt to address a very important facet of our culture.
The Sixties (which actually began in the 1950s and did not reach completion until well into the 1970s) brought many welcome developments, not least the refusal to accept authority at its own valuation, but the era also exalted unlimited individualism and enshrined the concept of unlimited choice, combined with the illusion that youth is everlasting. This has led to a doctrine of personal convenience, so that everything, including the birth and rearing of the next generation, has to suit the temporary needs of the individual.
The prevailing “commitment phobia” has weakened every form of permanence. Permanence itself is seen as undesirable. Cohabitation, in this mindset, becomes admirable, rather than the impoverishment, both emotional and economic, which it is for many. Unselfishness is reinterpreted as stupidity; any form of self-denial thus becomes incomprehensible. Gratification must be immediate.
Children pay the price of our selfishness. Concern for the welfare of children is often, and rightly, proclaimed, but the rights of the child are usually forgotten whenever the rights of the couple are being debated. Several decades ago, psychologists first identified “the search for the absent father” as a major factor in the lives of those who lack a father figure. Large numbers of people are now permanently in search of their origins. We forget that all children crave stability.
In the contemporary Irish situation, we can still question current Western trends and be dubious about the presumption that secularisation is inevitable and that it, somehow, is the answer to our problems. Our culture continues to be based on Christian values, which allow us to wonder what a child-friendly Ireland would look like, to ask what vision of the family we really endorse and to ask immigrants what attracts them in our society.
Studies of our immigrants are nearly always based on questions about their economic rather than their social or religious expectations. There is also the unspoken expectation that, eventually, they will pack up and go home, so their ideas about family and religion are of little interest. The real challenge will come when we realise that many of them are here to stay. We will then have to pay closer attention to their ideals rather than merely to their earnings.