Mum, Dad, 2.4 children: what next?

Even the Tories admit that the family is dead. Yet work, schools and the law are still built around

We've been sobbing at its deathbed for some time now. The religious right may have worked tirelessly to bring it back to life, but a few weeks ago, the Conservative Party announced that it was time to face the facts. Marriage is no longer the vibrant institution it once was; nor is it necessarily the best thing for everyone. It is still a wondrous thing, especially when children are involved: brought up by married parents, they are far more likely to grow up happy, healthy and high- achieving.

But even the Tories now accept that other arrangements can also form the basis of loving and lasting unions. The time has come, they say, for the law to give same-sex couples official recognition.

Their momentous turnaround was only a partial endorsement of Lord Lester's Civil Partnership Bill, which has just had its second reading in the House of Lords. The bill is not only about giving gay couples some of the rights now held only by married couples. If it becomes law, unmarried heterosexual couples will also be able to register their civil partnerships. If they do, they, too, will have the same standing as married couples when it comes to pension rights, bereavement damages, and inheritance.

Baroness Young, spokeswoman for the party hardliners, is not amused. When marriage is equated with "other arrangements", she says, it is "downgraded". The supporters of the bill claim they have no desire to undermine marriage or underestimate its importance as a social institution. All they want is to extend certain basic protections to the many millions who live outside it. But what if Baroness Young is right? What if we do stop marrying? Is this the end of the traditional nuclear family? If so, what have we got in its place?

Twenty years ago, 74 per cent of British people aged 16 and over were married. Today, that constituency has dropped to just over half. The same period has seen a steady rise in the number of people cohabiting. The trend is particularly marked among the young, with between 20 and 24 per cent of all women in their twenties, and men in their late twenties and early thirties, now cohabiting. Overall, the percentage of non-married women who cohabit has increased fourfold from 8 per cent in 1979 to 31 per cent in 2000.

The number of same-sex cohabitations remains tiny, so tiny that statisticians are often reluctant to classify them separately. Until recently, this reluctance extended to all other forms of cohabitation, too. So the database is pretty poor. The General Household Survey did try to rectify matters in 2000, by asking respondents about their cohabitation history. When it asked men aged between 16 and 59 about "cohabiting" unions that had not ended in marriage, 2 per cent said they had begun their first such union in the 1960s. The figure rose to 12 per cent in the 1970s, 37 per cent in the 1980s and 47 per cent in the 1990s.

People cohabit for many different reasons and in many different ways. But more and more often, and especially among the young, cohabitation serves as a sort of trial marriage. If it works out, you get married; if it doesn't, you move on to marry someone else. But only if you want to. The most recent British Attitudes Survey found that two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds do not believe that you have to marry before you have children.

This is almost the same as saying that most young people accept the world the way it is. One out of every three children born in Britain today is born out of wedlock. Most have parents who are living together, but possibly not for long. Figures suggest that cohabiting parents are less likely to stay together than married parents. That said, the staying power of married parents is not much greater. Four in ten marriages still end in divorce. One in four children will see their parents divorce before they reach the age of 16.

It is hard to make definitive statements in an age when the only constant is constant change. However, the long-term trend seems clear. The traditional nuclear family, the standard unit that comes complete with male head of household, dependant mother and 2.4 children, is no longer the norm. In its place, we see a proliferation of other arrangements. We are, within reason, free to live the way we like. The state and the church can no longer dictate the terms, and that has to be a good thing.

But that is not to say that all is well in post-nuclear Babel. For the moment, most of us are paying a high price for our freedom. We no longer risk censure and ridicule when our family arrangements depart from the old norm. But we've exchanged the hell of exclusion for the purgatory of semi-legitimacy. Thus, I am free to work even though I have children, free to divorce, free bring up my children alone, and free to set up a new household with a new partner as and when I please. But every step along the way I will have to deal with a small but daunting league of doubting Thomases - friends, relatives, neighbours, doctors, teachers and employers - who think what I am doing is unwise or immoral and do not hesitate to say so. Even those who give me the benefit of the doubt will be quick to withdraw it the moment something goes wrong. If my daughter does badly in an exam, it must be because I work. If my son throws a temper tantrum at the supermarket, well, it must be because he's still upset about that horrid, horrid divorce.

There may be people who refuse to make snap judgements. But because our thinking about the rights and wrongs of family life is now so fractured, our private choices will be controversial to someone somewhere, no matter what they are. Semi-legitimacy is more than just socially awkward. It has real and dire consequences, especially when disapproval leads to the erosion of traditional entitlements and supports. A lesbian mother who has broken her leg and also broken with her family cannot ask her own mother to help her out with childcare during her convalescence. A gay man whose lover is in hospital may find himself excluded from medical decisions.

Semi-legitimacy means living in perpetual conflict, because no one can agree where one person's turf ends and the other's begins. To adjudicate, when a couple splits, we must turn to the Kafkaesque monstrosity known as the family court. Kafka should be required reading for all those who are thinking of passing through those doors, and for anyone who assumes that you have to be a criminal before a court will bar you from seeing your own child.

Those of us who live in non-traditional families are not well served by the law. Most of us do not have a clue how vulnerable we are until after we are wounded.

According to Lord Lester, most people who cohabit assume that "common law marriages" are recognised in law. In fact, they are not. It is to bring us in line with "other democratic countries" that he has introduced his bill. The changes it proposes will improve our situation to some degree, but there is much, much more to be done before we can begin to talk about parity.

Whatever type of family we choose to live in, we have to face dilemmas that are bigger than we are. And too many of these dilemmas can be traced to the same source. It is not just the law that is lagging behind the times. It is every institution that touches on family life. The structures of work, education and care are still designed for the nuclear family that is no longer: the standard unit with the breadwinner who never has to rush home early, and the full-time wife with the eternally available pair of hands. But now she's at work, too.

Now that there is no longer such a thing as a family wage, most households today cannot survive without two incomes. But their caring responsibilities, for the young, the ill and the elderly, have not diminished.

This is one of the great dilemmas of our time. All families grapple with it. It doesn't matter if they are new or old, same-sex or heterosexual, married or cohabiting, spread across several generations or households, or all living under one roof. The old social contract has broken down, and we need a new one that offers a fair and democratic deal to families of all persuasions.

This is not an original demand: the Equal Opportunities Commission has been campaigning along these lines for quite some time now. What I can't understand is why your Tony Blairs and Iain Duncan Smiths are so reluctant to engage with it. Is it because they are corporate patsies, or are they the last remaining human beings who like it the way it is?

This article appears in the 04 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Revealed: how Labour sees women