Chapter 13: Family
"Of all the institutions that have come down to us from the past none is in the present day so disorganized and derailed as the family."
The affection between parents and children should be one of the greatest sources of happiness, but in the present day "and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred" if is a source of unhappiness to one or both parties and it is one of the greatest causes of discontent.
The causes of family unhappiness are diverse, and parenthood has become a burden far heavier than it was felt to be in former times. It is particularly true of women, who are compelled to live in a family due to economic dependence, whether on father, husband, or some reluctant brother. The single woman, without a family, has no occupation to fill her days and no liberty to enjoy herself outside the "sheltered walls of the family."
Even in the authors time, this was changing: women were entering the workforce and have no difficulty in making a comfortable living for themselves, and are therefore less dependent on the approval of others to support her. That is, unless she decides to marry, at which point she is expected to quit her job and attend to her husband, becoming once again a dependent and a subordinate.
The author also concerns the "paucity and bad quality of domestic service," in that a woman as head of household takes charge of "a thousand trivial tasks quite unworthy of her ability" and she must perform menial work or find herself constantly scolding her maids and services. Given the unpleasant nature of her daily routine she will soon "lose all her charm and three-quarters of her intelligence," fussy and small-minded, and wearisome to her husband and a nuisance to her children.
He also considers urbanization to be toxic. Cities such as London and New York are a filthy sprawl. Indoor living spaces are confining and there's no "outdoors" to speak of as the streets and sidewalks offer no place for an adult to sit or a child to play, with hardly a field, a tree, or a hedge. It is difficult to escape the city, as it takes so long to get out of the urban clutter.
In Russell's time this was a recent and dramatic change, as most people lived in the country, towns were not very vast, and cities were less dense. Cities are terrible places for children, and if professional men make their homes in the suburbs, their daily commute adds considerably to the fatigue of their lives and they have little energy to devote to their families. But these are "large economic problems" that a single individual cannot address, and must for the most part abide and find his happiness in spite of them.
He also speaks for a time of the social structure, and the democratization of society. His sense is that in previous days the power-balance in relationships, who should submit to whom, was perfectly clear. And while a slave may have not been happy with his role, he did at least know what his role was and could find happiness within it. Being democratic and equal create a great deal of uncertainty and confusion, as it takes time to sort out relationships and no-one is every quite sure of himself or his role.
The same problem is evident in the family, in which parents are no longer confident exerting control over their children and children no longer feel they owe respect and obedience to their parents. The new science of psychology has them further confused - to show affection to children or discipline them may result in some terrible disorder. So conscientious parents do too little of either and raise children who are starved for affection and have little self-discipline.
In light of all these troubles, it seems little wonder that the age of marriage is increasing and the birth rate is in decline - the prospect of starting a family is made wholly unattractive. In all of western culture, the ranks of the most intelligent and civilized men are thinning while the boorish and crude breed prolifically. It is clear that this situation is unsustainable.
Religion combats this problem by making it seem all the more onerous: it is obedience to god for a person to get married and raise as many children as possible. The state is all to eager to support this, as the children of today are their armies of the future, and provides economic incentives to reproduce, particularly for the lower classes whose issue is the rank and file of the legion. Raising a family, once a pleasure and a privilege, is thus made an onerous duty that is even less attractive for the attempts to promote it.
Apart from the circumstances of the present day, parenthood is capable of providing "the greatest and most enduring happiness that life has to offer." He cites example of culture and testifies from his personal experience of parenthood. He also suggests that parenthood is a cure for isolation - to feel oneself part of "the stream of life" that flows from prehistoric times and extends to the unknown future. It provides the context of mortal life and shows its place in immortality.
In general, paternal affection is reserved to feelings toward one's own children, and is a function we inherit from our animal ancestors. Its core function is species survival, as mammals in particular are vulnerable in youth and require attention that, without such affection, a parent would not provide at their own inconvenience. For that reason, parental affection is deeper and more enduring than any other affection.
"In all human relations it is fairly easy to secure happiness for one party, but much more difficult to secure it for both." A good relationship, and one that will endure, must be satisfactory to all involved. In terms of the family, many marriages are entirely one-sided, and the trend in the author's time was toward more egalitarian relations; but the parent-child relation was during the same period skewed to be burdensome to the parent.
The source of happiness in parenthood is a blend of power and tenderness: the power of immortality.
There is power in extending oneself in a biological sense into a future that extends past ones own lifespan, the power to create life, and the power over a child who is essentially helpless. Consider the conflict of the teenaged years, when children become adults, self-sustaining and independent, rather faster than their parents would like. Parent s plot a future for their children that their children may not want, and have a desire maintain power over a dependent whose maturity requires them to become independent.
It is often the case where affection and overprotection become smothering - undesirable and even unhealthy. "In a thousand ways, great and small, the possessive impulse of parents will lead them astray, unless they are very watchful." The same can be said of any relationship, even in political matters, though in that sense the hope is so distant that it's scarce worth considering. But on the smaller scale of parent and child you can see in adults the lifelong damage of the influence of parents who were too overbearing, and it can be as debilitating as that of those who were entirely negligent.
The joy of parenthood is often lost in failure to have an attitude of respect toward the child, and failure to recognize that the tender tyrant remains a tyrant in spite of this tenderness.
He also recognizes that in his age, the responsibilities of parenthood are relegated to persons other than a parent: a child is reared by maidservants and schoolteachers. This is in part necessity, as it cannot be expected that a mother will teach her son calculus - that is better done by someone else. It is also the consequence of women exercising their right to pursue a professional interest outside the home, which the author acknowledges as desirable, but requires balance to ensure that the duties of parenthood are attended.
Moreover, parent is not instinctive - and not all parents are good parents. It therefore sees entirely logical for mothers and fathers who are "baffled and incompetent when faced with their children" to delegate the task of raising them to others. To do the work themselves will produce children who are "psychologically ruined" by parenthood that is ignorant and sentimental.