All families are psychotic. I’ve nicked that title from a Douglas Coupland book, but it’s also something I believe. Families are mad. They’re mad because they drive you mad: the rigid roles, the irritating habits, the repetitive behaviour, the ownership issues (“Don’t sit in your dad’s chair!”), the unfairness: one child is deemed delightful, the other disruptive; one partner organises everything, the other isn’t quite sure what a direct debit is. The way your family tethers you to a version of yourself that you can never quite shake off, no matter how violently you shudder. They might call you CEO in work, but at home you’re always Bogbreath.
Happy families are all alike? I still don’t believe that tenet. I was brought up in the warmth and security of an utterly conventional family. My dad was a university lecturer, my mum a teacher in an inner-city secondary school. They were married in their twenties and had me in their late twenties, my brother two years later. Nothing to write home or to social services about.
Of course, because we grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, my brother and I were allowed to do things that these days would seem bananas, even worthy of police intervention. When I was 7, I took a train for two stops then walked a mile to school every day in the company of no one more mature than a couple of ten-year-olds. Mostly, of course, they would abandon me, and my seven-year-old friends and I would cross busy roads, wander along back paths and say hello to friendly, unknown adults going to and from school every day. That wouldn’t happen now. Nor would any respectable mother kick her kids out at 9am on a Saturday and not expect them back until lunch, as mine did. Not the stuff of madness then, but considered so today.
There was medically defined madness in our family too. My dad, a clever, kind man who cut our toast into animal shapes at breakfast, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. It put him in a mental hospital when he was in his early twenties. He had electric shock treatment there, which he told me later helped him a lot, along with listening to Elvis records and the Animals’ We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place . He had several episodes when I was a baby and a few later on, triggered by stress and what you might call “contributory factors” (children). I remember talking to him about it when I was older and feeling embarrassed by how close his fear and panic and illogical/logical thinking was to what I had experienced myself but in my case through taking too many recreational drugs. What kind of nutter deliberately messes with their fragile mind?
My mum had problems with food and eating when she was young, problems that these days would probably be medicalised, treated with therapy and drugs or an appearance on a reality show. My brother was gay, which might have been tricky if we had recognised it at the time, which we didn’t. He was beautiful and charming and had strings of girlfriends throughout his teens. We should have know, really.
None of this bothered us much. My dad had bad moods that seemed to last a long time and so did I. My mum shouted, my brother liked Bronski Beat: so what? My brother and I got on with our own lives, as kids do. Anyway, even back then, I could see that everyone’s family was just as mad as ours. I had mates whose dads were never out of the pub. One of my friends went on holiday and, when he came back, found that his father had moved out and a new dad, previously unknown to him, had moved in. Another used to hide from his older brother because he kept forcing him to put golf balls inside his foreskin (you made your own fun in those days).
I had a friend whose mum sat at home in the front room, with his dad in the back. Though they shared the same bed, they never spoke to each other at all, except via the kids. The dad had a mistress and my friend once opened the fridge to show me the chocolates that his dad had bought for her for Christmas. He hadn’t bought his sons anything.
I now live in another conventional family structure — there’s me and my husband and we have two kids: someone give us a medal — but, again, if you look a little deeper, it’s not quite so simple.
My husband was married before. He’s a Catholic from Belfast, and he and his Protestant girlfriend were married when they were 21. They have two kids, a boy and a girl; both are in their mid to late twenties now and married themselves. D, the eldest, has been married twice, actually: he married his Muslim girlfriend in his early twenties and converted to her religion. Once they divorced, he continued in his faith. He’s now married to a Hindu woman. Eat that, sectarians.
Convention dictates that my husband’s first wife, M, and I should hate each other, but we don’t. We get on really well, and she and my husband are still very good friends. M is godmother to our kids. At Christmas all of us will get together, as we usually do, and fuss over the little ones, take the mickey out of each other. Does this make us a blended family? What if you include my brother, who came out when he was 18 and is now married — well, it was a civil ceremony — to his partner of 20 years? (They’re known as the Hunkles, because that’s what they are.)
Are the Hunkles a family? Or does “family” only come into play if you are straight and have kids? The Hunkles’ nephews (on my brother’s husband’s side) lost their dad to cancer and the Hunkles take a fatherly role with them; does that transform them into a family? Does the F word include close friends? There are plenty of teenagers who refer to each other as “fam”, yet they’re not related. A great friend of mine — a single woman in her fifties — is usually listed by our kids when they go through family members.
So many families are so unlike the conventional cliché that it almost — almost — makes you feel sorry for politicians. There they are, trying to appeal to the sensible, conventional majority and they think the way to do so is to give money to those who get married and to groups of people they define as “hard-working families”.
It seems particularly silly to me to reward marriage (why not reward kindness? Just as random and more meaningful, if hard to administer). We all know unmarried parents who provide a more loving environment for their kids than those who put a ring on their finger. Personally, I found that a wedding made absolutely no difference to me and my husband’s actual, everyday, loving, human relationship. We’d been together for eight years; we already had one child. I didn’t change my name. Our being married makes the paperwork easier if one of us dies. That’s it.
I didn’t want to get married, if I’m honest. But my husband, who’d thought his child-rearing days were over, compromised by having more with me, so who was I to refuse his proposal? We love each other, he likes being married and I don’t really mind either way.
And isn’t that what families are actually about? Love and compromise and caring for other people? When we get exercised about Ulrika Jonsson or Kate Winslet having children with more than one man (actually, with more than two men: two fathers seems to be fine these days, but no more), I think: do these women love their children?
It’s as though politicians are invoking a different era, living in a different time. It’s almost 2014. Nobody really cares if your parents are gay or straight, if you are adopted or the child of a teenage mother. (You might care, of course, and that is your right, but, honestly, no one else does.) British people are more tolerant and experienced than politicians think. Show them a family where the children are adored and celebrated and they approve.
In previous years, even my marriage would have been looked down upon, if it had been allowed to happen at all. I would have been mocked for having my kids so late. My brother and his other half would have had to hide their long-lasting, devoted love. In more recent times, my dad could have been prevented from having contact with his kids. And yet, we all get along fine, we muddle and argue and laugh and love each other. And so do many others. All families are psychotic. Enjoy the madness.
All Families Are Psychotic, a BUG event in association with House of St Barnabas, will take place tonight at 7.30pm at the House of St Barnabas, 1 Greek St, London. Speakers are India Knight, Andrew Samuels and Melanie Rickey. Tickets available at wegottickets.com. All proceeds go to the homeless