Thursday, 24 June 2010

Observing Extended Family

Presiding over Rites of Passage ceremonies and services, you get to see the coming together of families. There is always the immediate family who hug, kiss and greet each other with familiarity and ease and then the larger extended family that shake hands and hug in a more resigned fashion, aware that they are present out of family duty.

After the ceremony, there is usually a “get-together” of some kind, whether it be a reception or wake, when there is time for everyone to socialise and catch-up with each other’s lives. All families appear to treat these opportunities in a similar way. Each family unit keeps to its own group sitting at the same table. It would seem that they consider themselves as part of the greater family by being in the same room but that is all. As if modern life doesn’t already create enough barriers to keeping family ties strong, people seem to unknowingly encourage the scattering and ultimate breakdown of the Extended Family.

Over the last 50 or 60 years, there have been some big changes in society that have challenged the loyalty of family life. Most of it shouldn’t make a difference, but sadly it does.

For a start, travel has become a modern way of life and even without the extreme of emigration, families no longer stay in the same areas. Career opportunities as well as social standing often lead sons and daughters to move length and breadth of the country meaning that previous close ties are loosened.

Despite changes in the law and medical understanding of homosexuality, bisexuality and trans-gender individuals, we are still living with the stigma which was taught to our parents and grand-parents of the evil and perversion of such people. This has often lead to families gently pushing out those who may cause embarrassment or discomfort to the rest of the family, (I know this one personally).

Finally, and probably the biggest change, is the modern desire to own our own homes, a family car and other modern consumerist items that we feel we need, which means that it’s not just Dad’s that go to work but Mum’s as well. This one is a double-edged sword because, despite the breakdown it has caused, it has also given women the opportunity to fulfil their own dreams and use their intelligence beyond household chores, making them much happier when they’re in the family home, but it has brought it’s loses to family life as well as communities as a whole. The woman of the home used to know everyone in the street, which gave a tribal feel to the area in which they lived. Children had the security of having their mother with them in their earliest years without the insecurity that must come from being passed backwards and forwards between parent and child-minder. Without the reliance on a family car, Mums were more willing to hop on the bus to visit local family (if they lived beyond walking distance) giving the opportunity for children to bond with relations and friends.

I guess, no blame can be laid on those who attend family “get-togethers” and keep themselves to their own distinctive unit. It feels safer and more secure being with people you know, where-as, even if the little grey haired fellow in the far corner is Great Uncle Harry, you’ve never met him, you know little about him so you’d feel uncomfortable about sitting with him. What if he didn’t even remember you existed? What if you had to sit there with him and neither of you knew what to say?

I may be generalising with all this, being a naturally sociable person myself I enjoy chatting to people I’ve never met before and hearing their stories, I know I’m not the only one so I guess there are still some of us who are willing to mingle and breakdown the little walls between family units (even though I can’t do it with my own family anymore), but my observations tell me that this is becoming a continuing theme that now runs through most extended families.

Perhaps we should feel grateful that there is still the sense of duty that brings the individual units into one place for the hatches, matches and dispatches of life. I can’t help feeling that something is being lost but we’re a complicated race and it’s difficult to make a positive decision on whether this seemingly new way of living is balanced out by the increase in our communication facilities. Perhaps ties will improve again once enough years have passed to ensure that even Great Uncle Harry is on email and that we know the entire extended family in type or text format making it all the more exciting when we meet on family occasions.

I wonder.


  1. Shammy: you are so right! We went to my sister in law's 50th yesterday, and spent the whole time with the rest of the family (two brothers in law and their families). I did chat to a couple of other people, but we don't meet up as a family very often, and it was so nice to have some extended time together. x

  2. Hi Shammy - I have created a UK Unitarian blog aggregator at and wondered if you would like to link to it.