There is no doubting the fact that family life, from the family of origin where we begin as children, to the family we create in the present, is what orientates us towards the future. It presents the profoundest and most far-reaching challenges to our personal growth. There is a lot of baggage in this package, from the role models our parents and grandparents present, to our own over-idealized notions of what we do and no longer expect to do.
But, as St Francis reminds us, 'It is in giving that we receive'. Part of the problem is that we see marriage more as a contract than as a commitment, seeing it as a 'deal' between two partners. Most of the time we are distracted and confused by the false ideas in the media and in our culture and even in the representation of our religion. In marriage and family life these new ideas have created havoc because women have dropped their self-sacrificing notions and are suspicious of concepts of 'maternal instinct' that seem to reinforce the power positions of men.
The decision to marry was an agonizing one for me. I never doubted my love or commitment to Paul, my husband, but marriage didn't look much of a deal for the women I knew. I trusted Paul and declared to myself and others very loudly that it wouldn't change things.
But marriage does make a change in one's life - for both partners. It is a profound challenge to the past, the family of origin, where we begin our experience of family life and where we are given the opportunity to interact with new choices and experiences.
Today the old role models are gone; both men and women work outside the home and juggle to sustain a meaningful family life. Women in Ireland, and certainly in the Derry I grew up in, always worked inside and outside the home. But they are now redefining themselves and wanting more from their relationships, particularly the fundamental marital one.
The growing pains are real and visible for all to see. Marital breakdown reveals the very real pressures couples experience in redefining their relationships in our complex world. Parenting also challenges one in new and significant ways. We tend to idealize happy families and can be easily discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges presented in rearing children. Not least because it seems that children's physical demands diminish at only a fraction of the rate at which their emotional ones multiply.
Popular culture influences this situation immensely. Especially media culture, which is the never ending spin of products, lifestyles, entertainment, music and TV that effectively teaches our children, while we live with the consequences. Combining motherhood and career is a very political agenda these days. The media promotes the glossy image of motherhood, while the rest of us feel we are not measuring up.
Our moral compass is totally disorientated by the confusing messages in our media culture. We need to go where, ironically, former Prime Minister John Major suggested - to get our house in order. Unfortunately, his call for 'back to basics' did not get us very far as his government seemed as confused as the rest of us about how these basic guiding principles should be lived. To rebuild anything, self, marriage, family and the connected relationships and institutions of our time requires 'moral re-armament', to use Frank Buchman's phrase.
The challenge of personal growth in family life is to put 'first things first' and make our families the priority in our turbulent world. We need to cultivate a sense of shared purpose, and unconditional love that confronts and redirects our course where necessary.
Pope John Paul II speaks of the cementing nature of a couple's love. In quoting the example of his own parents, he comments, 'To their loving union I owe my love of God and of humanity,' confirming that the greatest gift you can give your children is to love your spouse.
Family seen in this way becomes a powerful agent of change. 'We - not me' has priority, initiating a personal odyssey.
The challenge of family life is to give it priority as our greatest investment. Dividing ourselves between so many things often sees things that matter most at the mercy of things that matter least. Juggling the needs at home and the demands of an increasingly ruthless and relentless work culture means we sometimes feel driven by forces outside ourselves. The glossy media images that permeate our lives with a relentless emphasis on success and achievement make the feeling we are not measuring up almost inevitable.
Good families may be off-track most of the time, but it seems to me they know what the track looks like, informed by values. Without values we apply relative truths that will suit ourselves. In this confusion, as Yeats put it, 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold'. We need to use these core values to provide effective leadership in ourselves, in our families, workplaces and relationships. The image of ourselves as 'professional achievers' leaves a gnawing emptiness at the centre.
The challenge is to communicate, learn, support, solve problems, forgive, repent, serve, worship, survive, hopefully thrive and have fun in the process of living and loving together. The challenge of family life to personal growth involves each of us in this journey, leaning on and learning from the heritage of our faith. For, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, 'Whoever shapes the family shapes the future.'
By Faustina Starrett, Catholic journalist, lecturer and mother, also coordinator of media programmes at the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education, Derry.