What do we mean by 'family'?
What do we mean by 'family'?

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What do we mean by 'family'?

4.2 Family meanings matter to people in their individual lives and relationships

Survey research in the UK, reported by Jacqui Scott (1997), shows the extent to which families matter when people are asked about the key events in their lives over the previous year. While there were some differences by gender and age, the overall pattern was clear: events concerning family lives were considered to be the most significant. And, in the intricacies of personal lives and relationships, family meanings can be complex and powerful.

As an example of how powerful these meanings can be, I'd like to consider research evidence from outside the UK, but which resonates strongly with British cultural contexts. Barbara Cox Walkover (1992) conducted interviews with young American couples who were having difficulties with conceiving a child, which they cast in terms of ‘wanting to start a family’. Walkover was struck by the starkly polarised images and emotions that arose in these interviews; indeed, she refers to ‘the family’ as ‘an overwrought object of desire’, as her interviewees struggled to reconcile their hopes of a perfect future family life with their fears of becoming imperfect parents who might resent their loss of freedom and individuality. What Walkover is at pains to acknowledge, however, is that this situation is rooted in much wider – but unrecognised – contradictions in this particular culture about what a family ought to be. These young couples were trying to deal with wider dilemmas through their own individual hopes and failings. Cultural meanings are thus translated into personal meanings, generating much tension for the individuals concerned.

While the tensions that Walkover discusses are particularly stark in the context of young couples trying to conceive a child, they can also be seen in interviews I conducted with mothers in the late 1980s. The interviewees there were white mothers living in middle-income households in the South East of England, all with an eldest child aged seven. In my discussion of these interviews (part of which is reproduced below), I consider the extent of the efforts made by mothers to create their ‘families’. However, this work is largely discussed as unremarkable by the mothers themselves, as families are understood to be ‘natural’.

Becoming ‘a family’

For households in circumstances similar to those of my own study, it is largely the mother's task to create ‘the family’. There are two very important processes in this:

  1. internal cohesion, welding the individual members together into a meaningful unit, and

  2. external demarcation, drawing clear boundaries and separating the family clearly from other social units.

If ‘the family’ is indeed impossible to identify at a concrete level (as Gubrium and Holstein argue), in what ways is its unity signified and symbolised and made to appear concrete? A number of powerful symbols appeared in the women's accounts, including the home, spending time together (whether meals, playing board games, or family outings) and pictorial representations such as photographic collections. Yet in all these cases, it is the presence of children that is crucial to ‘family’ symbolism.

When the first child is born to a married couple, this is expected to produce a different sort of social unit – the baby is not seen as a simple addition to a ‘household’, but an essential ingredient in the creation of ‘a family’. The household is thus expected to be more than a collection of individuals who have to learn to live together. There is the additional central expectation that they constitute a social unit that can be demarcated from those around, and that is made special by the presence of children. So when the baby arrives, the woman is in the position of being confronted with this new being, for whom she is responsible as an individual, but at the same time, the arrival of this baby is expected (by her and by others) to lead to the establishment of a new social unit, which is ‘the family’ … Furthermore, providing this ‘family’ may be construed as the essence of loving children:

JaneCould you say in what ways you think perhaps you make a good job of being a mother yourself?

SusanGiving them loving I think is the main thing.

JaneAnd loving involves all the things you mentioned?

SusanYeah, giving them a good family life, I think.

(Ribbens, 1994, pp. 58– 9)

Research interviews, such as the ones we've considered above, show us that family meanings have a powerful impact on people in their individual lives, particularly when those meanings involve a cultural or personal ideal of what it means to be ‘a family’. Thus, family meanings matter to individuals and impact on their lives in the following ways:

  • People who hope to constitute a ‘normal family’ try to live up to virtually impossible associated expectations in their own lives (as with the studies discussed above, and with those you'll explore in Chapter 3).

  • People who don't feel that they can hope to (or don't want to) ‘fit’ the image of a ‘normal family’ may feel marginalised and excluded.

  • Alternatively, people may try to redefine the term to claim its emotional and moral significance for new patterns of living – in effect, to diversify the meanings of family.

Family meanings also matter when people interact with one another – whether with family members, researchers or professionals – as there may be much scope for misunderstanding.


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