Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

In Spain, it’s Family First


As I have written about before, it was the experience of becoming a parent that first made me question some of the values of the UK culture we were living in, and identify some disconnections from how I felt things could or should be.  I am sure every parent goes through this to some extent, round about that moment that everything changes forever and the concept of family gets utterly redefined.

It seems that a lot of the attributes we valued around Mediterranean parenting centre round the intrinsic valuing of the family above all else.  In Spain – because I had better stop generalising about the vastly different cultures surrounding a massive body of water – family is everything.  At least, it is the first and most important social group, for the vast majority of people.  That loyalty and connection supercedes other associations such as peers, workmates and so on (the only exception possibly being football team affiliation which some Spanish men definitely seem to esteem even more highly than their madres, but in a less threatening and aggressive way than often happens in the UK).

Of course this ‘family first’ outlook can be very frustrating, in situation such as business.  If you lose out on a great job to the idiot cousin who has just been shipped in from the campo, or don’t get your trading licence expedited because you don’t happen to be related to the mayor, it’s easy to cry ‘unfair!’ immediately… but that is to look at things from a very Anglo-centric viewpoint.  No Spanish person would question these decisions or regard them as unexpected, never mind unfair, because ‘family first’ is so internalised as to represent the natural order of things.  If you are not related to the mayor, at least try to drink with one of her daughters, or date a cousin perhaps, then you might start to develop the right kind of family connections and start to get things done…

This has important implications for young people growing up, because some of the strongest conflicting feelings I remember from my own childhood and adolescence were about self-identity, who I wanted to be.  Whether I wanted to be like my friends or not, and did that mean the being like the friends I really liked, or the ones I wanted to like me? Was I going to be like my parents one day, or were there other ways to be, different role models? What about people on TV or in music… the influences of the wider world and the need to be independent from the constraints of childhood overwhelmed everything and caused such conflicting behaviours and feelings.

Certainly a lot of my actions and decisions were driven by a need to be as different to my parents as possible, and I honestly don’t think Spanish adolescents experience this to the same degree. It must make for a considerably less turbulent time, when there’s more than enough to cope with physiologically and educationally.  With all those hormones crashing around, it must help a lot to have a strong grounding of your place within a family and community network, that I am not sure kids in the UK share that as much, at least I didn’t back in the day.

Me and my lovely girls

Me and my lovely girls

I think we easily fetishise the ritual of teenage rebellion, forgetting that it was largely invented in the US media only a few decades ago rather than something biologically intrinsic to maturing.  Whilst cultures around the globe have rituals around growing up and transitioning from childhood to adulthood, these more typically centre on induction into the main adult tribe, rather than kicking against it in the way that we all felt we had to do in the 70s and 80s.  God knows it would probably have been easier if that hadn’t been so firmly embedded in our culture, to the point where variations from this norm were the subject of humour (think of the straight-laced daughter character Saffy in Ab Fab, for a good stereotype from my own adolescent years).

This plays out in the growing international demographic of multi-generational households – not in itself a new thing, but now the phenomenon of kids never leaving home has practical and financial drivers as well as habit.  It must be easier for young adults in Spain to accept this lifestyle, than those in the UK who see it as a failure to become independent and grow up… living with the parents is a logical choice in an economy that even in the boom times typically paid very low wages in most industries compared to the rest of Europe.  The phenomenon of the ‘milleuristos’, young and often highly qualified professional workers in Spain clearing around €1000 per month, predates the recession by many years.

It’s been a bit of a joke in Spain for some time that young adults would far rather stay in a comfortable family home where they get their meals and laundry services provided, and probably live rent free to boot… A typical Spanish family home is less likely to have a mortgage on it than in the UK especially out of the cities, as well as it simply being less likely they will be asked to contribute in this way.

Indeed a Spanish friend was quite shocked when I said that in the UK most families would expect working adult offspring to contribute financially to the household.  As far as she is concerned, if her teenage children ever feel like spreading their wings and leaving home she’ll probably regard it as more or less temporary, and said she expects to keep their rooms ready for them at any time.  If they get married and have their own families, they’ll be welcome too – although she does acknowledge that at that point it may be less likely they will decide to come back and live with her.

None of us know what our children’s futures will hold in these strange times, but I hope they will take with them into adulthood a strong sense of family identity.  It sounds a little strange but I think their Spanish environment and the values that inculcates will help them, as they grow into their international third-culture heritage, to stay close and connected to their extended family in the UK and further afield