Helen Martin: Family . . what does that mean?

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WHAT exactly counts as a “big” family nowadays . . . and who wants one? Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the Sheep, certainly stirred up parental debate when he suggested that couples should be restricted to two children to save the planet.

With world population now at seven billion and having climbed the chart almost vertically since the 1800s, his argument is that humankind is placing unacceptable demands on resources and the environment. And he’s backed by several well-known environmentalists and naturalists.

Debate ranges from China’s draconian single-child policy and our ageing population requiring more younger people to pay for and provide care of the elderly, to the irresponsibility of having children you can’t afford.

It’s undoubtedly the developed world that uses most resources and creates most waste and it’s certainly the case that man’s history of colonising vast areas is killing off other species – which could have dire consequences for us all.

But what really set the cat among the pigeons was that for once, here was an argument that wasn’t about money. Prof Wilnut wasn’t just blaming the poor who kept on “wantonly” reproducing while expecting the tax payer to pick up the tab for housing, feeding and educating their children.

He wasn’t just talking about under-developed countries with high infant mortality where parents bore eight children in order that two or three would survive to scratch a living on soil less fertile than themselves.

The professor’s case went right to the heart of the middle classes, who, burdened by mortgages and school fees and working long days (albeit at well-remunerated careers), thought that by raising the next generation of doctors and scientists and engineers – and paying for it all themselves – they were doing a good thing and shouldn’t be limited. It would take a bigger brain then mine to work out the pros and cons. But one thing I have observed is that in Scotland and the UK, we have already massively reduced the size of our families and there’s every reason to believe we will go on doing so naturally, without population control.

In the fifties and sixties, big Catholic families of six, seven or eight (my aunt had 13) were common. Now four or five is deemed “a big family”.

Whether your religion or beliefs support birth control or not, a typical family today has between one and three children. There are exceptions of course but in 21st-century Britain both parents have to work and only the exceptionally well-off can afford to have one parent at home, or afford childcare times four, let alone holidays for six.

Once a big family was seen as a wholesome, loving thing that meant sharing and doing without some luxuries in exchange for convivial happiness and having your own Christmas choir round the battered old piano. Being able to feed everyone was the main priority.

Now it’s less fashionable as well as less affordable. It’s not the done thing for kids to sleep four to a bed, top to toe any more.

Weekly tin baths have been replaced with daily showers requiring multiple bathrooms, hand-me-downs have given way to designer labels, and any child who got an orange and a sixpence from Santa would be complaining to Childline.

In a touchy-feely “engaging” society, big “tribal” families who turn inwards are regarded as antisocial in comparison to small families who reach out to others for sociability and community identity.

But for those who do want a big family, short of enforced birth control, imprisonment or death, how would we stop them? Taxes would mean the rich could breed regardless and cutting benefits would only affect the Western poor. Global population control would be well-nigh impossible.

And then there’s the very definition of “a family”. In a world afflicted by marital breakdown, single parenthood, serial philanderers, IVF, and Rod Stewart, population control is about more than mum, dad and two point four kids. The professor may well be right, but making it happen is something else.

Hearts attacks

APPARENTLY I am getting pelters on a Hearts fans’ website for expressing horror that anyone in the council would consider providing land for a new stadium – a notion that has now been rejected anyway.

I haven’t read the posts, though I can gather from one of my relatives that not all of them are erudite and eloquent.

He said: “It appears you have thrown a brick into the primordial swamp and disturbed the pond life.”

Just for the record, let it be known I am not anti-Hearts or biased. Had it been Hibs with their hands out for council support, I would still have said it wasn’t the council’s job to spend public assets on fishing a private company out of the drink.

I sincerely hope they do get their new stadium – by other means – and preferably that their financial situation improves to the point where the club can pay for it.