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Relationships - Family life works... Is it working?

It is time to take family life very seriously and to rethink the direction we are giving it

When I write that family life works I mean it. Possibly not the family life society heads towards. Current life styles are based on consumerism and put money as the primary value. There's no sense in saying I work for my family and then not being able to be present in that same family's life. Moreover, many of the functions that were associated with the family in the past are now being institutionalised. Is it better? Is it worse?

At the beginning of this year, a European research project declared that British children are the most unhappy children across Europe. This was shocking news and the Britons are still struggling to understand. I personally can't understand the shock. So much is happening there signalling the children's unhappiness. Adolescents killing peers and adults, prisons full to the brim, high security wards and prisons full to the brim, increasing drugs consumption and decreasing age of onset.

While culturally we may think that the Maltese are not as advanced as the Britons are, we can at least still boast some social solidarity. Is our family life working? We are lucky as we can still direct our resources towards a different destination. We have to ask the first question: Where do we want our children to be in five, 10 or 20 years' time? Unless we do something now we can expect to know where we will be in years' time.

The government has its part to play and quite a big chunk too. Since it is increasingly institutionalising parenting by promoting earlier education and taking children on board the education ship as early as 18 months, the government is supposed to provide a parent replacement that works and that guarantees success. Has it found the formula? My concern is that we are looking too much at foreign models that eventually failed. Will our children face the same fate?

But it's not on educational grounds that the government is expected to perform. It has to make sure that other cultural qualities like solidarity are maintained and strengthened. It has to work hard at upholding important values of self respect, the family, and religion. It has to make sure that the evils of consumerism and individualism don't overrule our logic. There's a lot of incongruence in this area and people are confused about what is best.

On the other hand we parents have to contribute too. We have to learn to distinguish what makes happy children, form what makes happy parents, and give children their due. There's a great need to beat the contradictions inherent in our society. We want happiness and we look for it in the wrong direction. We want love and we try to achieve it through the wrong means. People want to be happy and have a good time, and there's nothing wrong with this so long as we understand that we have to pursue it tangentially and not through happy hours at the bar, dope, and so on.

It is us parents who have to teach our children that life is life and that happiness is a by product of its context. It is commitment that gives us the freedom, it is by giving that we receive and therefore it is by making sure those around us are happy, that we are happy.

To be able to teach, one has to have a conviction and a passion about one's teachings. Many children don't believe their parents when they tell them good and valid things. The reason is simple. Contradictions! We go to Church and pray for others and simultaneously our children hear us fighting with others. We speak about love and don't give them our presence but give them money and things instead. We speak about self respect and then work from dawn to dusk, smoke, drink alcohol and drive carelessly. We speak in favour of the environment and drive big cars. We make promises we don't keep. We speak of loyalty and have affairs.

One current tension is the care for the elderly. On the one hand there's a government claiming the importance of family life and on the other more homes for the elderly are cropping up from nowhere and making good business. This is another function of the family that is being stolen from the family. No one has time to care for one's elderly any more, except for visits at the comfy home of your choice. It's not only a question of time though. Most people really need to work for a living and find themselves in hard dilemmas about taking care of their elderly. Simultaneously many elderly are being politely emarginated from families.

It all boils down to money. It's all about the illusion of choice that we are being given. It's like when I used to ask my children "do you want to wear the blue jacket or the red jacket?". It is a leading question with manipulative tones of a choice which does not really exist. Is it the euro or the Lm? Is it this old people's home or that old people's home? Now you can even choose to pay your tax over the internet. That's a nice choice! The social development route that we have taken is leading us towards increased materialism and individualism. Do people really have a choice?

The course the nation has taken is leading to increased loneliness. Family life is not working any more because it is being fragmented. Its grounds for connectedness are being taken away. Many feel lonely and misunderstood within their marriages and families and simply find solace in self disclosing with someone else. The sense of loneliness is increasing as is reflected in increasing depression, anxiety, and other affective mental health problems. We have lost trust in friendships and relatives as sources of valuable connectedness. Solidarity is now only associated with voluntary work or the donation of money, another institutionalised activity which has directed this country to become a society of beggars, with programmes and marathons all begging for money for this and that organisation. But there is a whole culture to change and money will not change that culture.

It is time, therefore, to take family life very seriously and to rethink the direction we are giving it. It is wise to review all the contradictions and tensions that need to be addressed. I understand that I may sound a bit catastrophic in saying that family life is not really working. But my job takes me into people's lives which are often catastrophic. Away from the comfy desk and immersed into people's stories I feel I am obliged to voice the concerns of those who are in contact with me. Otherwise, because of shame, labelling and social criticism, these experiences remain hidden and untapped.

• Dr Azzopardi is a systemic family psychotherapist.


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