The changing meaning of family

One time I was reading an article by a writer whose work I enjoy reading occasionally when she referred to a book her young son was reading as picturing “one of those vanilla mummy/daddy families”.

That is, it showed a married mum and dad, and the couple’s biological children.

It was clear by the context that she chose that word ‘vanilla’ to mean bland, too-common, and uninspiring. Though it was irrational to feel personally insulted, I did feel a sting.

Her off-hand comment had touched some buried splinter of insecurity about myself and my choices to uphold and try to live my Catholic faith to the utmost. Which includes being committed to living my very vanilla family life.

I guess it’s vanity to not want to be thought of in such a dismissive way by a stunningly gifted writer I admire. Even though I know her assessment possibly reflected her own woundedness.

It’s clear that the meaning of ‘family’ has changed in our culture over the last 50 years or so.

The term family or family values now refers as much to family engineering as to the natural order of things. Today’s family doesn’t even need any marital or biological connection but accommodates many, shifting, configurations of relationships.

‘Family values’ is a phrase being increasingly used to affirm people’s brokenness and efforts to patch things together in all sorts of ways.

And there are good things about this, as there is good in most things. Families do take different forms for different reasons. I am not against the more ‘modern family’ – I belong to an extended so-called ‘modern family’! The changes in family life today are reality, and in all reality God’s goodness is and always will be evident in some way.

But there’s no good reason for antagonism or resentment directed towards the regular form of family – mother, father, and their biological children. The natural law, when adhered to in this way, is very good, beautiful, and true, and should enhearten and inspire us all.

We do violence to ourselves and our society when we try to convince ourselves that the most beautifully human way of living family, though it’s becoming rarer, is somehow contrived or out-dated.

Pope Francis recently celebrated Mass for the largest congregation in history, six million people, in the Philippines. While in that country he gave a deeply consoling and encouraging message to Catholic families.

He encouraged parents to look to St Joseph as an example and for help. He encouraged us to dream, and remember our best dreams for our future. To spend time resting in God every day (an inspired way to describe prayer and its effects). Like St Joseph, after understanding God’s will through our time spent in prayer, we should “rise with Jesus and Mary” and do what we must with confidence and peace. And finally, we are called to be a prophetic voice for the world.

I think his advice, if heeded, would lead to a life and a society that was anything but bland.

There’s vanilla and there’s vanilla. Yes, it can be boring. Vanilla icecream, for example, mass-produced by robots and excreted into uniform plastic containers for cheap sale in fluorescent-lit supermarkets is hardly worth the effort to make or eat it.

But the same food made with exquisite care and love, with real spice, is amazing and very different depending on whom has made it. Jesus said, when talking about being salty, that we should retain our flavour with real pungency, right?

So yes, I may have be in one of those vanilla families and uphold the vanilla family way of life but thanks be to God! It’s real vanilla we’re talking about here and it’s amazing.

This article was originally published in The Catholic Weekly.

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