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Posted on January 26, 2009
From The Age: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/its-time-to-enlarge-our-closed-family-circles-20090104-79t2.html
It’s time to enlarge our closed family circles
January 5, 2009 – 1:20AM
FORGET wide brown land, forget the drought — when I returned to Australia after a two-year absence, the country resembled a fecund cabbage patch.
Australia was having its biggest baby boom since 1992 and many of my close friends were doing their bit for population growth.
Suddenly my life was filled with new people — new little people: Jacks and Matildas, Rorys and Charlies and Olivias.
I’ve got enough friends, thank you very much, I thought, but like it or not I was going to have some more.
A generational shift occurred when my back was turned and suddenly I had become a family friend.
It’s a big responsibility — but I wondered, what does it entail these days? How would I do it? What’s the role now anyway — and does it even exist?
Parenting manuals, websites and chatrooms tell you until your ears bleed how to be a good parent, but all are silent on how to be a good family friend. “Family friend” is a phrase almost absent from any public discussions about family.
It is used sotto voce when discussing abuse, as in he was “once a trusted family friend” or a “family friend” is wheeled out to make statements to the media after a tragedy when the immediate family is too distraught to talk.
But other than that, the family friend has somehow slipped away from public discussions about family life.
The notion of family has contracted — suspicion lurks in the public swimming pools and in the parks.
In England, The Guardian reported recently that a grandmother was questioned by police for playing in semi-secluded woodland with her grandchildren. Several joggers had reported seeing something “suspicious” — that is, someone playing with children who did not look like the mother. In these days of fear and loathing, of stranger danger, you are either a parent or you’re not. There is no middle ground. But I would like to think there is something in between — someone who cares for the child in a parental way, who the parent trusts — an older friend to the child, a long-time friend of the parents — that is, a family friend.
When I was growing up, besides my parents and grandparents, family friends were the most important adults in my life.
Not only did they look after us, they played a major role in keeping my parents sane — companions on the odd night out away from home and a friendly ear when they felt overwhelmed by four small children.
When I was older and away at university, it was family friends that moved me into college, and it was in their houses I stayed when I felt homesick. They were an extension of my parents but now, as an adult, they have become my friends.
Recently, some family friends (university buddies of my parents) met me for dinner in London. It had been many years since I had seen them, yet there was a special warmth in the room that evening. They knew me before I even knew myself, maybe felt me kicking in utero; they knew my parents when they were first married and younger than I ever believed them to be. They babysat me and my brothers when we were little, and we went on family holidays together. They had, over the decades, nurtured me. Now as adults we were sitting down and having a meal. Maybe that’s what family friends give you in the end — history, and a feeling of being known in a deep and abiding way that new faces, brief encounters and fresh friendships can’t provide. Family friends have been privy to my tantrums and tears and changed my nappies — which is not something I can say, thankfully, for my own friends.
Back in Melbourne, I hold the Jacks and Matildas — all the new babies — the way my parents’ friends once held me. I also see us 30 years ahead — in a restaurant together, talking, marvelling at knowing them before they knew themselves.
January 5, 2009 – 1:20AM