If political and social debate in the 19th century was dominated by the Condition of England question, the 21st-century equivalent is without doubt the Condition of the Family question. Is it collapsing, declining, restructuring or metamorphosing? Is it in need of help or beyond repair? If the former, is that the responsibility of politicians, priests or parents? And what do we mean by the "family" anyway, when fewer and fewer people with children are married or even living together, when there aren't even relational labels to describe many of the connections between so-called family members? Is my husband my stepsister's brother-in-law? What is my half-brother to my cousin's half-siblings?
Freely enters this debate with her usual verve, scything this way and that in a gutsy attempt to cut a clear path through the confusion. It's not her best book, but it is, like all her books, original, interesting and thought-provoking. She has a genuine talent for making us see what is under our noses. In her last book, What About Us? the mothers feminism forgot, Freely took the trouble to say what many of us knew but few of us ever articulate: that motherhood and feminism are profoundly antithetical. In The Parent Trap, she lays bare the inherent contradictions in the way the debate about family life is being formulated.
Freely starts by looking at recent news stories that have attracted intense media interest, such as the trial of the au pair Louise Woodward; the case of Mandy Allwood, who became pregnant with octuplets after taking fertility drugs; and the legal battle fought by Diane Blood, the widow who wanted to use frozen sperm taken from her dying husband without his consent. Freely argues that the way these and other stories are covered confirms crude stereotypes, whips up anxiety and hampers any chance of proper debate about the condition of the family. (She does not discuss the extent to which newspapers are products as well as producers of opinion.)
Moral scaremongering about the state of the family, she argues, is extraordinarily pervasive and has become worryingly acceptable. We would rather blame parents when a child gets battered to death than accept that, as Freely puts it, "poverty is the greatest abuser of children in our society". We would rather thank our lucky stars for not having a nanny like Louise Woodward than ask why most childcare in this country remains unregulated and unmonitored. We would rather tut-tut about neglectful parents who leave young children home alone than ask why many parents routinely run this risk.
In Freely's view, an "alarmist, parent-bashing climate" is evident in all discussions about family life, from reproductive technology to parenting techniques and discipline in schools. More worrying, it informs political decision-making in distinctly unhelpful ways. Freely has major reservations, for example, about the influential government report "Supporting Families", published in 1998, headed by Jack Straw and generally hailed as "a good thing". She argues that, far from helping families, the report was both patronising and disempowering. The government assumed the role of a caring but strict father to a nation of parental incompetents who must be taught how to do a better job through courses, guidelines, monetary bribes or fines and edicts from above.
Freely's analysis of new Labour's attitude towards parenting is convincing but too kind. The government, in her view, is misguided but benevolent. I'm not so sure. Isn't the professionalisation of parenthood that Freely (among others) identifies, and which the government promotes, an indication of the hollowness of Labour's much-flaunted concerns about family life? Instead of safeguarding home life from the demands of the workplace, the government wants homes to be run like offices. The language of the workplace is now routinely used to discuss the relationship between parents and children. Childhood itself must be run as efficiently and productively as possible. But how can family life be anything other than vulnerable in a society in which a rampant work culture goes entirely unchecked?
Freely, in the final pages, sets out a "bill of parental rights", which she believes would enable parents "to change their children's lives for the better". It amounts to an impassioned plea to politicians and policy-makers for parents to be placed at the centre of the debate about the family, and for the family, whatever form it takes, to be taken as seriously as it deserves. I hope new Labour reads it.
Rebecca Abrams is a writer and critic