My Family Care asks Roberta: What does a family unit mean in today's society? What does family mean to you?
The nuclear family
The term 'family unit' is a pairing of words I've not heard in everyday usage for years. So, when asked to write for this column, I went to Google to key in the words out of sheer curiosity to see what came back. The definition has definitely broadened in recent years to encompass more than the old 'conjugal' pre-90s nuclear family made up of a husband, wife and two children.
My 'Happy Families' bubble
Remember the card game 'Happy Families'? This was, in essence, my own upbringing. Mum, dad, me and my younger brother lived as a traditional nuclear family as did most of my school friends.
Just like anyone who grew up in Britain in the 70s and early 80s, I have many treasured memories from childhood that didn't cost the earth. Happy times spent with extended family of uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins.
I fondly remember paddling pools in everyone's back gardens, picnics, sandcastles, Peter Powell stunt kites, long family walks to the top of big hills and rolling down grassy banks wearing hand-knitted jumpers. We always ended up covered in clumps of grass and those sticky green balls which I never did get round to learning the name for.
I loved singing along to the chart hits on the radio, religiously watched Top of the Pops each week, the Eurovision Song Contest and the Last Night of the Proms every year and, as I grew up, made my own Top 20 cassettes by recording the chart show every Sunday night.
As a family we've always adored Labradors. Each time our beloved family pet died, nothing felt right so we'd soon replace our elderly old gal with a bouncy new pup. Nothing compares to that special bond between a child and a dog, in my opinion. I have so much gratitude for the traditions and values my parents and extended family gave me which contributed to making me the adult I became.
Me as a mum
When my first husband and I got engaged in 1986, I warned him I'd like a big family. Preferably four children and a Labrador. I had aspirations of a big bustling home and was determined to give my kids a childhood crammed with lasting memories they'd look back on with equal fondness.
But, as first-time buyers in the early 90s with a 100% mortgage to pay, juggling family and career became a real challenge. I was torn between work commitments and home. Then one day, heavily pregnant with baby #2, I heard my two year old son accidentally call the childminder mummy in front of me. Something had to change.
Immediately after the new baby was born I looked to the future by starting a business from home with no intention of going back to paid employment. Three years later, in the midst of franchising the business we were suddenly expecting twins. Four children! My dream was almost complete but on my husband's insistence, still no Labrador.
When the bubble burst
When the twins turned 21 months old my husband decided to move out. The financial pressure and the stigma was unbearable. My family meant everything to me, and although I tried to play both mummy and daddy, I felt like a failure. I was exhausted, depressed about my failed marriage and overwhelmed with the enormity of keeping the roof over our heads and the business afloat whilst trying to be a good single parent to four lively kids under 7.
I was proud of my success in business but one of my first tasks as a single parent was to accept I am only human. The time came when I had to let that business go to be a better mummy. I'd brought my children into this world and I was committed to giving them the best of me that I'd previously given to my business. I was their constant. Their security.
The kids became my reason for living and I owed it to them to really hold myself together. Fortunately the business I'd built was highly saleable. This enabled me to not lose the home we loved and to provide the stability the children most needed.
Then came the Rainbow
Mourning the loss of both my marriage and the business left a big gap in my life which looked remarkably like a Labrador puppy-sized hole! Enter Rainbow. She became a healing force of nature in all of our lives.
I learned a valuable parenting lesson. No matter the shape or dynamic of our family, especially following trauma or loss, fostering a sense of gratitude for our blessings is the difference that makes all the difference.
As the saying goes: Having somewhere to live is a home, having someone to love is a family and having both is a blessing.
That is such a profound truth.
The blended family unit
According to Wikipedia a family is the basic unit for raising children.
"Anthropologists generally classify most family organisation as matrifocal (a mother and her children); conjugal (a husband, his wife, and children, also called the nuclear family); avuncular (for example, a grandparent, a brother, his sister, and her children); or extended."
11 years ago I remarried. Alan and I started our journey as a new step-family. Following the tough times, I knew, more than ever, that it's having the right mind-set that gets us through the challenges. Tough times build character and our core values run through everything we do like the words hidden within a stick of rock. And whatever the shape of our family unit and whether we're:
- raising our own children or someone else's,
- caring for ageing parents,
- rekindling a relationship after children have grown up or
- falling in love all over again with new grandchildren and creating brand new traditions.
We must remain committed to making things work. Keeping a sense of playfulness helps too. Nothing makes me more proud now than to see the wonderful young adults my children have grown into.
A family for life
I recently turned 50 and my family unit has shape-shifted yet again.
Two of my children still live at home with us with one coming and going from university. Alan and I now rent a much larger house because we made the decision a few years ago to become foster carers for large sibling groups. It's challenging work, immensely rewarding and I absolutely love it. We get to share all those simple pleasures and values with more children who need a safe, secure family environment due to being unable to live with their birth families.
As a foster family, we are still very much a family, even though we're not all related by blood.
There are now nine people living in our family home, two 'parents', three adult children/step-children who are fabulous young role models and four young people (ages 10-15) in long term foster care with us. But no Labrador at the moment.
After saying goodbye to our beloved 14 year old lab Rainbow a few months back, we're now awaiting the imminent arrival of a brand new puppy. A pet to bind the whole family and connect us all in love. Our recently revised family unit required a democratic approach and the involvement of everyone in deciding the shape of the family as we all look to the future together.
It looks like our next family pet will be a Golden Retriever. And do you know what? I've never been happier!
Roberta Jerram, Foster Carer and Entrepreneur