Friday, October 3

Family as an economic institution

This is in fact the first thing ‘family’ ever was. It was, basically, some sort of business deal. Women married men so they were cared for, had food, clothes and a place to live in. Men married women so they had someone to take care of their homes and have their children. Everyone got what they wanted. Then romance came in.

If you think that’s a pretty cold-blooded way of defining the ‘traditional’ family with father, mother and kids, you’re probably right - and haven’t spent much time reading about the history of Europe (where our ‘western’ ideal of the family was mostly founded).

Whether among noblemen or mere farmhands - marriage has been a deal for a long time. Love did not feature into it. People married to be cared for, to have the heir they wanted, to gain more money (among noble families, but also among richer farmers or citizens). Sometimes it was merely the matter of obtaining a certain piece of land that could not be acquired otherwise.

Women rarely had a chance to earn their own money, especially in the higher classes. A simple maid could work, but she would never earn much money. And the only ‘legal’ way of having children was to get married first. The church cemented this idea, because it suited them very much. Marriage was a matter of the church and by making it the basic necessity for proper propagation, the church put itself into a very powerful position.

It was only in the late 19th and early 20th century when the notion spread among people to marry out of love. Before that time, marriage was arranged and the couple arrange things among themselves after getting married. One of that ‘things’ might very well be a mistress to the side for the husband (or an attractive stable hand for the wife). But everything was kept under covers, very discreet. The marriage as a such worked so well, because it was a business deal, first and foremost. People usually did not love each other, but they did respect each other. Love may die, sometimes even rather quickly, respect usually lives a good deal longer.

Today, the economic base of marriage - and thus of the traditional family - has broken up. Women earn their own money. It’s no longer a social death if a woman has a child without being married. Marriage has, instead, become a romantic idea. Getting married is something women dream of today (as it’s not a simple arrangement made while they were still kids - or at least without them). They want a romantic marriage in white, with everything that includes. To some, one might even think, it’s no longer important whom they marry, as long as the ceremony happens.

Conservatives (who still see the traditional family with the church-given marriage as the only ‘true’ family) are quite worried about this. Today some universities turn out more female than male graduates - which implies, of course, that one day there will be more female doctors, lawyers and so on than male ones. Shocking for the conservatives - because the woman should stay home and take care of the children, once they’re born. The mere idea of a man staying home and taking care of the children is enough to nearly give them a heart attack. Should women someday really be paid equally, family as the conservatives define it could break up forever.

There are two main questions, though: When will it happen? And what will replace the family? Humans will always live in groups, so if the family does no longer exist as a group, some other kind of group has to replace it.

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