With the holidays been and gone, family is on my mind. I haven’t been ‘home’ for Christmas – that is back to America – for nine years. When I was a kid, my brother and I were given rules on the day – things we should and shouldn’t say. My Dad knew not to drink too much, to keep past grudges hidden. My Mom practiced her small talk. We were all on our best behaviour and, because of this, we always survived the egg-shell walk of Christmas with minimal damage.
Even during trickier moments, I still loved these holidays and the way they taught me to navigate family dramas as a child and young adult. The satisfaction of knowing which aunts to keep apart, which jokes to tell, which political conversations to avoid, offered a welcome introduction to diplomacy. I made mistakes, sure: pushed the buttons of a racist uncle, picked a fight with my brother which caused him to leap out of my moving car, tried to wake up my Dad who was too drunk to make it off the couch. But, in the end, these led to important lessons and have made me more empathetic and tactful than I otherwise may have been at university, in work and in relationships.
All of these memories – and the ducking and diving of the holidays – makes me think about how families, or the notion of family, operate on a stage wider than my own. The concept of ‘family’ is often discussed by politicians. In the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at the 2014 Relationship Alliance Summit about the link between family and politics:
For me, nothing matters more than family. It’s at the centre of my life and the heart of my politics.
As a husband and a father I know how incredibly lucky I am to have a wonderful wife and to have had 4 amazing children.
But in loving my family, and in reflecting on my own upbringing, I’ve also learned something important about the way that family and politics are inextricably linked.
Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times.
It’s family that brings up children, teaches values, passes on knowledge, instills in us all the responsibility to be good citizens and to live in harmony with others.
And so for someone from my political viewpoint who believes in building a stronger society from the bottom up, there is no better place to start than with family.
In the USA, former President Barack Obama talked often about the importance of family life and, in particular, fatherhood. In 2013, Obama spoke in Chicago about reducing violence and strengthening the economy and how this starts with family:
But I’ve also said no law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill — only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole. In too many neighborhoods today — whether here in Chicago or the farthest reaches of rural America — it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town; that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born. There are entire neighborhoods where young people, they don’t see an example of somebody succeeding. And for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected.
Both these politicians – and many, many more – talk about family as the foundation of good economies, good countries, good citizenship. However, these talks often imply that those of us in families who are less ‘functional’, less than the ‘ideal family’, are creating problems for our society. This sits uncomfortably for me, not only a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family, but as someone who recognises that families are made up of individuals who have their own desires and dreams not connected to ‘family life’. For me, many ‘truer’ representations of family – which include the messiness, the weight of expectations, the insecurities – can be found in the work of poets like Natasha Trethewey, Sharon Olds, Pascale Petit, Raymond Carver, clare e. potter, Jackie Kay and more. By talking about their own families, or observing families around them, these poets give a more varied depiction of family life. Their work acknowledges the wider, societal expectations placed on families – i.e. what they should be – while also exploring how these expectations are undermined or subverted. As someone who writes often about complex family life, I am fascinated by how other poets do this. It was this fascination that prompted me to run my upcoming course of family politics and poetry.
I hope to pose questions that have always tugged at me: In what ways are poets joining political conversations about family? How do poets talk about the wider, societal expectations placed on mothers, fathers, spouses and children? How are families like political systems? How do individual family members act as politicians in their own lives? I am looking forward to seeking answers to these questions using political speeches, propaganda, and poetry. Best of luck to everyone else navigating family politics this season. And a Happy New Year!
Probe the (dys)functions and politics of family life with Christina Thatcher on her new online course, Family Politics. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.