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Irregular families?

/ 05:20 AM March 23, 2018

I don’t know if the term is used much, but some years back, when I applied for my eldest child to be admitted to a preschool, I was gently told that she could not be taken in because she was from an “irregular” family.

It seems we were irregular on two counts: adoption (I look at it as two-way: A child adopts a parent as much as the other way around), and solo parenting. Maybe we lost on still another count: a solo father.

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I got the message, found a good preschool that is inclusive, and never bothered trying to get into a “regular” school again.

“Irregular” is a term used by some people to refer to anything that doesn’t fit into the stereotype of a family as consisting of a father, a mother, two or three children, and maybe a dog and a cat.

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Think of the last family reunion you had, probably around Christmas and New Year’s Day, and you probably encountered more
“irregular” families—single parents, separated parents, maybe even same-sex parents.

But irregular families are here to stay, and in large enough numbers that need more attention. I even suspect, with so many Filipinos having to work away from their families, that irregular families are now the norm.

Declining marriages

Let me start off with one clear trend from the Philippine Statistics Authority, and I’m quoting from its latest report: “In a span of 10 years, the reported number of marriages decreased by 14.4 percent from 2007 to 2016.” The actual figures are 490,054 in 2007 and 419,628 in 2016.

The decline is incongruent with the growing population, including the segment of young adults. These “marriageables” just aren’t getting married.

Are they perhaps postponing marriage? That certainly is happening, with the median age of marriage in 2011 as 23 for females and 28 for males. We know, too, of the phenomenon among low-income families of couples living together because they can’t afford a grand church wedding. They postpone, and postpone, until they reach middle or even old age, and then sign up for a mass wedding sponsored by some politician, with their grandchildren or even great-grandchildren attending.

But postponement just can’t explain the declining number of marriages, which covers all age groups.

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I looked for statistics on the number of couples living together and there weren’t any, at least not as research with the enumeration of live-in couples as the main objective. But there is the National Demographic Health Survey done every few years and involving large numbers of women, to look at the number of children they have, family planning, and other aspects of maternal health. The last NDHS was conducted in 2016, with results released only recently.

For the 25,074 women in the survey, designed to reflect the national population across regions, 35 percent had never been married; 42 percent, married; 18 percent, living together; 3 percent, separated; and 1 percent, widowed. (I’ve rounded off the figures, which is why they don’t add up to 100 percent.)

The “never married” segment of the female population deserves more attention. We know all too well from our own clans of aunts who postponed marriage to support younger siblings through school, until, as one of my own aunts described it, “time passed us by.” That said, many did unofficially adopt nephews and nieces, raising them as their own children as an irregular family. Just last weekend, someone in our clan who was everyone’s favorite aunt passed away, and the wake was not so much sorrowful as it was a celebration of her very full life—a nanay in every sense of the word.

As for the other figures, note that 18 percent of the women in the NDHS were in live-in relationships. I would not be surprised if the actual numbers were higher. When surveys are conducted, women are simply asked: “May asawa ba kayo?” (Are you married?) and even in a live-in relationship, they will answer “yes”.

It is important to establish just how many live-in couples there are because they do not enjoy many of the social services and privileges granted to married couples. Women in live-in relationships are vulnerable because the men can abscond any time, fleeing their responsibilities for the children. Women do leave their live-in partners as well, usually because they suffer domestic abuse, but take their children with them.

What happens then, especially in urban poor areas, is that women might move from one live-in relationship to another. The men they live with may also have children from previous relationships. These are called blended families, although I wonder just how blended they can be, given the natural tensions that come from having stepparents and stepsiblings. Blended families happen, too, when widows or widowers remarry.

Informal social sector

If there is an informal economic sector, there is also an informal social sector—couples in live-in relationships, children unofficially adopted by an unmarried aunt, or even, in poor communities, by neighbors.
Very quietly, too, there are many same-sex couples in the Philippines who have been adopting children, again unofficially since they can’t even marry.

I’ve written occasionally about the sandwich generation, or people who have dependents going up and down across generations. One very extreme example that I documented had several generations of males having children very early, ending up with a newborn son, a father aged 16, all the way up to a great-great-greatgrandfather aged 92. And who do you think was providing most of the support for all these generations? Yes, the 92-year-old. A club sandwich family.

A variation now getting attention in the Western media is the boomerang parent. In the West, it used to be that children
would leave their parents during college or right after college, and never return home.

These days, because of the economic crisis in the West, the children who have moved out, sometimes already in their 30s, will move back in with their parents. Boomerang. Again, we’ve had boomerang parents in the Philippines and other poorer countries for decades, some of them even being boomerang grandparents (the grandchildren moving in).

All these “irregular” families have it tough, facing social discrimination as well as a lack of government support, varying from one “irregular” family type to another. Rightly so, more government support is now extended to single mothers, but single fathers have practically no benefits. Live-in couples have no official benefits as a couple, but their children do have some benefits from SSS, GSIS and PhilHealth.

The many changing configurations of Filipino families, irregular as they may sound, still fall back on basics: the need to survive, the need for companionship, the need of societies for biological as well as social reproduction, particularly value systems. In the current war on drugs, I have found in urban poor communities kind neighbors taking in children whose parents are in prison, or who have been killed.

Take time to get to know some of those families in your clan and in your community and you will find they uphold family values much more than regular ones.

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