For an Ambassador to the Holy See and a father of six it is very natural to begin this reflection on the importance of family values with a thought of Pope Francis that always moves me. The Pope loves to talk about the “dinner table experience” as defining for family. I totally agree with him and will go even further in saying that sitting around the dinner table all eight of us is probably the first image that pops into my head when I think of the word “family”. Why? Well, when I sit there and watch the loud, but basically cordial chaos around the table I realise several things at once. First, that this teeming community is only there because one October morning 23 years ago my wife and me decided to get engaged and, the year after, to get married. After all these years you still wonder how many incredible stories you set in motion with such a seemingly small and private decision.
Secondly, sitting at the dinner table you realise an important truth about family: it is really the laboratory and first school of democracy, especially when you have more than one or two children. The experience to grow up in a numerous family is shaping you for life. Witness the child that is very hungry and would love to dig into the sausages – but has learned to wait until the younger brothers and sisters have gotten their share. Witness the younger brothers and sisters listening in to the talks of their elder siblings and learning from their ideas, decisions. Witness the bigger child that tells a gruesome story – and realises that you have to take care not to perhaps frighten a younger sibling. Or that you may have to pay attention to “weaker ones” when, after trying to say something for five minutes without “getting through the noise”, the youngest child suddenly runs out crying and you realise that you were not loving and charitable. And witness the young child experiencing that, having been encouraged to come back to the table, it has a right to its own opinion and will be listened to by everybody even if it cannot express itself as sophisticated as the others. Witness the elder ones patiently taking in the stammered words of the younger sibling (although they could say it all much faster and cooler). Witness, finally, how everybody takes their turn in tidying away plates after dinner (well, after a lot of resistance). These rather idealistic-sounding descriptions are of course best-case scenarios and the fruit of many years of learning, conflict and fighting but they give you the idea that family is really the hotbed of the humanistic and democratic values that our society – and especially today’s Europe – needs.
Thirdly, the dinner table symbolises what family is and hopefully will always be – a closely woven tapestry of diverse elements, a community of very different and not always harmonious members who have still learned to look out for each other and will, hopefully, be there for one another later in life when they will, each in a different way, be pummelled by the storms of their individual life stories.
Now, I can almost see the shaking of heads at this bucolic scenery. Is the ambassador not aware that family is in a serious crisis in Europe today? That many parents, if they even get married, will split up soon, deciding to join new partners, and that most families will opt for one or maximum two children?
Of course I realise that to some eyes (especially in more “western” countries of Europe) a numerous family must seem as rare and out-of-touch as, say, a patch of healthily growing nature within the confines of an industrialised cityscape. But just as the presence of nature in a transformed landscape needs a series of factors to make it possible, I believe that the growing of happy, numerous and value- oriented families is made possible – or easier – by a number of inner and outer factors that can be worked on. A state or a society has every interest in fostering this kind of families – because children growing up in this experience will, with a high probability, at least wish for a similar family experience, for a numerous family – if, and that is an important if – state and society surrounding them encourage this vision of family.
The following thoughts are not the result of studies and scientific work, but of personal experience and working with family topics for years, so are more a kind of personal testimony. This is also the reason why I equal “family” with “big family” in many of the thoughts that follow.
THE IMAGE OF THE FAMILY IN MEDIA
It is no coincidence that, in many countries, it is mostly religious or “traditional” people that will dare to have a big family. Only if your experience, your tradition or you faith have taught you the value of a big family can you go against the storm of images and ideas that you are exposed to from the media on a daily basis for decades. Just a few random examples. In advertising, it is always two children sitting at a family breakfast table, watching TV, sitting in the family car. Very rarely three or more. Why is that so? Usually advertising reflects the ideas of society. But sometimes there may be ideas behind it. Profit is one of them, and – within certain limits – a legitimate one.
So, could there be a profit interest behind the decision to show only two children at breakfast? Beyond the fact that “it is what all people do nowadays”? Now, I cannot prove this, I hate conspiracy theories and I may be totally wrong but if you know big families you will know that a family with many children will of course buy more very basic things because they have more heads to feed – food, diapers, pencils – but will have to think three times before buying something a bit bigger or more expensive than the “usual stuff”. In other words, they are not ideal consumers.
A little story from one of my nephews: they got married, had their first child (a boy) and are now expecting their second child (a girl). At hearing the news one working colleague said, beaming: “Well, then everything is perfect.” Meaning: now that you had the “boy-experience” and the “girl-experience” you had it all and can stop, without having to have more children. He had no idea that my nephew wants to go for a big family. Two (and one each) – is considered perfect.
One other thing is that sexuality in movies is always and almost exclusively shown as being pleasant and worthwhile outside family ties. We only see the torrid love affair – and rarely a couple that is sexually happy “despite” being married and having children. Family is often shown as something oppressive, something to escape from.
And, of course, nobody is encouraged by the media to sacrifice a career for staying at home and look after the children at home. We are never shown the tough and beautiful reality of everyday family life. Normally, female heroines are not mothers at home, but tough business careerists or action heroines.
Most of all, what we lack is examples, famous role models of people with many children who signal: “having a family, even a big one, can be a fantastic life decision”. Nowadays young people worldwide will mostly follow stars and singers on Instagram. They will take their daily dose of life wisdom from these most shaky of all examples who are: a) almost never married and if they are, never for long; b) experiment with all sort of genderfluid lifestyles and LGBT fashions and get applause for it; c) will have children as late as possible, often via artificial insemination and almost never more than one or two (per husband/partner, that is)… Nobody among the kids gobbling up all these confusing messages consider that these are career decisions that come with working in the aggressively liberal world of Hollywood and being an actor/actress, a life that has next to nothing to do with a “normal” life.
The result of this constant barrage of ideas by these kinds of role models is that more and more kids, most of all girls, get absolutely confused about the most basic life decisions. Even if most of them still, somehow, would love to get married and have kids, they know that, unfortunately, is not possible because: a) “nobody” does that; b) it is a sign of weakness, of not being a strong independent woman. Add to this that less and less young people experience “normal” or even “happy” family life in their own surroundings, let alone know “numerous families”, and are mostly confronted with broken relationships – and you will begin to grasp how big the problem is.
Now all of this sounds rather depressing but we can make a difference. One of the ways could be that just a few people in prominent positions begin sending out a message of “Family is the greatest thing” or “Having five kids was the best decision of my life” – and you break a little gap into that wall of silence and let some light in. I give you two small examples.
In a world where many European leaders are not always married and do not ever mention their family, let alone their children, I had the joy and pleasure to meet the numerous family of our Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, when they came to Rome and the Vatican. I (and many around the Vatican) could observe that PM Orbán is first of all a family man, and that the values that the Hungarian government stands for are rooted in his personal life. It was a joy to observe the manner these parents and children treated one another in the hours I could be with them. This is, believe me, an unusual and strong message in Europe today.
In my Twitter activity I try, besides tweeting about Hungary, the Holy See and society topics, to always show glances of family life in a numerous family. Without of course ever posting pics of my kids and naming them I will write humorously about very typical funny situations, things smaller kids said, and adding a humorous hashtag like #thejoysofanumerousfamily. I observe that these sorts of tweets are very popular and get good reactions. This will, of course, not change the situation in Europe but the more people take the initiative to share the reality of family life – especially in social media – the more we can transform things. I urgently encourage all who know how to do this to begin sending this message out in an intelligent way. If people ever heard about “normal” people having more than two kids they had a tiny chance to think about this as a possibility for their personal lives.
It also helps when people, from time to time, see a big family. When people in Hungary or Austria see us with all our kids out in town they are astonished that anybody could go for so many children. In Italy where you have, to my knowledge, the lowest birth-rate in Europe (with the exception of the Vatican) – and Italy was the country for children – people stare open-mouthed when they see a family of eight walking the streets of Rome. However, they meet a hopefully nice couple and see that it is not totally out of the world to have a big family.
A SHARED VISION
Now another very crucial point is that going into a marriage we share the same ideas on marriage and family. Family life, as everybody knows, has many hard and intense moments, illness and financial hardships, fears and insecurities, crises. To carry through a project like a numerous family – nowadays when society will do everything to bring you apart and discourage you – needs lots of strength and conviction. Therefore, I cannot stress enough the role of common values and a common vision of “what we want in a family” before entering into a marriage. This may come from one’s own experience (having lived in a numerous family) or coming from a traditional background. I, as a Habsburg, have spent lots of time with cousins, distant relations and friends who lived in numerous families. Seeing this reality has shaped my vision – and that of my wife who came from a similar background.
However, I cannot talk about this in honesty without mentioning the role of faith in our marriage. It is very helpful if you share the same religion as your future husband or wife. Christians usually nearly automatically share a set of values and have, at least, a similar understanding of family, fidelity and life. Plus you have a secret weapon that others do not have: you know that your life project of family is being carried, along with you, by God. Because you began your adventure with Him. Whenever the storms of life get too strong you can both sit down in front of Him and throw all your worries and fears at His feet. Believe me, this makes a huge difference – word of a family father.
Now, you also should help create a good surrounding for families. Try to find friends with similar values and spend time with them. If your children grow up with other children who share the same vision of family life, they will get their ideas not only from their parents but also from others. They will perhaps experience that it may be a nice idea to have many children later on. I had only one brother and one sister but it was the many visits with numerous families – and especially the regular visits to a family with five daughters since my earliest childhood – that seems to have set the idea of “having many children” in my head. Also, friends with numerous families will be there for you and lend support when things are tough because they understand and find this is worth fighting for.
Education in family topics, for example the ones offered by faith-based groups, parishes or dioceses, is very helpful. In the face of the strong wind that modern (western) society and media create against the traditional family vision it is very important to form your thought, to be on the constant look-out for developments and to be, so to speak, “on top of the game” in what concerns family matters.
A STATE THAT HELPS
Finally, a word about the unpleasant but crucial topic of money – and what governments can do. Having a big family is always a very daring thing to do. A friend of mine, the spokesman of the Cardinal of Vienna, who with his wife has dared to have eight (!) children (being a journalist! most of his life) has written a very humorous and touching editorial in an Austrian newspaper. He begins with the description of going to the cinema with his entire family and ending up, after one normal evening, adding travel expenses, tickets, popcorn and drinks, with paying as much as a couple when they take a flight and back, to a holiday resort in Spain.
He then goes on to describe the normal reality of going on a holiday trip – first of all the size of the car you need, because secondly flying in ten is out of the question anyway as nobody could afford that. He gives more examples, for instance being forced to have eight new sets of schoolbooks, pencils, etc. every September without of course earning eight times as much as the colleague with one child.
A state, like Hungary with its Fundamental Law, and a society that acknowledges and understands that families are the laboratory of society, democracy and the social glue that helps building a stable society for tomorrow make all the difference for the decision to have a (big) family (remember the “dinner table” I talked about at the beginning). A state that leaves a woman the liberty to choose between working or staying at home – while appreciating the latter as a real “career decision” and contribution to the future – is really helping families. Therefore we should not only invest into kindergartens, so that both parents can work full time – but also give incentives for the courage to not work all the time and stay with the kids. A state that creates financial and other support for people with a big family does the most important thing for a hopeful Europe of tomorrow.