Following the somewhat ridiculous attempt by the Centre of Social Justice to promote marriage as a way of preventing children growing up without male role models today, I am re-posting something I wrote in January 2011 as it is just as relevant now as it was then and indeed was twenty/thirty/forty/… years ago (I have made updates where appropriate):
I have a rather long-standing beef with society and its attitude towards those who grow up in a single parent family. I hear the sighs already, yet another post about unemployment, poverty and the benefits spiral; we have been hearing a lot of that recently haven’t we? But stop sighing, I am asking a more pertinent question: what about the kids who get caught up in all this?
Take two very bright 10 year old girls, both starting a new school after they moved with mothers and siblings to a rather affluent suburb of a major English city to live with their maternal grandparents following tragic occurrences. Girl A lost her father to cancer some months before and girl B had lost hers to an acrimonious divorce at about the same time and had not seen her father since; it would be some years before she saw him again. Neither fit the generalised picture of unemployment and poverty: both sets of parents are professionals and where they are not exactly affluent, they both have wider family nets to keep them above the poverty line. Both are about to enter that taboo world of living in a single parent family, but both will experience that world quite differently. When girl A wanted to talk about her father, she attracted the sympathetic attention of teachers and pupils alike, who in turn did not quite know what to say around girl B, when she wanted to talk about hers. The general feeling was that if a father loses contact with his child, well then he was what we might at best call ‘feckless’ and was not worth the effort – in fact, the sympathy went to the mother: “poor cow, how dare he treat her so?” It was some time before one clearly extraordinary teacher noticed the ever-increasing piles of hair* that girl B was pulling from her head as she worked and took her aside one day as school was finishing. All she wanted was to see her father, but everyone was telling her they were better off without him. Girl B was simply grieving, just like her friend girl A, but unlike girl A, she felt as if missing her father was wrong, because in effect, that was what she was being told. On top of that she felt the rejection of her father, who she was convinced did not love her anymore because hey, if he did, then he’d be on her doorstep, right? After all, it is not like he was dead. None of this she could express and there was apparently no-one there to help her either, so as a result she had turned the pain on herself and started to self-harm. No doubt it took her a number of years to recover from that alone.
This is a true story and I could write a book about what happened next and how each girl tries to terms with their loss, maybe I will one day, let me know if you think it’s a go-er! Suffice to say that girl A later told girl B that she was aware of the attention she was getting and had for that reason made friends with girl B in the hope she could share some of that attention with her. Girl A admitted that in hindsight she had probably had it easier than girl B, not least because at some point she could begin to move on, always in the secure knowledge that her father had not rejected her. Girl B’s father probably did not knowingly or even intentionally reject her either; your guess is as good as mine. Things have changed since these two girls were 10, but it’s still not enough.
I am by no means saying that to lose a parent due to the breakdown of a relationship is worse than losing a parent to a terminal disease or indeed vice versa. Both will leave a child in a state of extreme grief and that grief needs to be dealt with. For whatever reason though, it seems to be easier for us as a society to accept a child needs grief counselling when one of their parents has died than to accept a child needs a considerable amount of support when a parent is very much alive, but not where they should be. For the child, it’s a loss either way. As a society we need to recognise that and recognise that this constant debate around the whys and wherefores of family breakdown does kids no favours at all. Deborah Orr put it quite nicely in her article in the Guardian at the time this post was originally written: ‘All of this argy-bargy has been going on for years, and tends to produce lots of heat and absolutely no light.’ Absolutely. So let’s start shining the light on those who innocently get caught up in the idiotic behaviour of adults and the consequences thereof and work at helping them.
Declan Lawn’s Panorama report ‘Britain’s Missing Dads’ from January 2011, from which Orr’s article originated, was sympathetic to the kids to a point: yes, perhaps we do need to change our attitudes to fatherhood as well as continuing the debate around employment and benefits. However, I found myself going around in circles asking, are these ‘feckless fathers’ feckless because they are poor or poor because they are feckless. So what either way? Lawn’s own young daughter summed it up for me in a nutshell, absent dads everywhere listen up: “I love my daddy for giving me a hug”. That’s all it boils down to for those who really matter; the remaining rhetoric is just like listening to a very worn record. Because Frank Field MP, as much as I agree with you on many things, I do not agree that this is the first generation to accept a man can relinquish all his paternal responsibilities. Rubbish, this has been going on forever!
Neither do I agree that this is class thing. Here’s my guess: affluent families are perhaps just better at hiding it, woe betide anyone notices the cracks. The light is simply shined much brighter on those claiming benefits, since many members of this society seem to begrudge paying into a welfare system they may, through no fault of their own, need to fall back on some day!
But none of this got my back up quite as much as the idea of making couples pay for using the CSA (see here). In fluffy Toryland people may well be able to settle their differences amicably but that is rarely the reality. Who pays for that? The kids. You can walk away angrily or otherwise from a relationship as an adult, as a child in the middle of it all, you’re stuck in a no love land watching them snarl at each other while they argue over who gets the hostess trolley with what feels like no way out. Let’s face it, love and lust do crazy things to people, makes them act irrationally across the board – it’s been like that since the beginning of time and will continue to be like that until time comes to an explosive end. I do not believe there is any point wasting time trying to change that biological fact. What has to change is the emphasis of debate.
A few years ago I read ‘Adult Children of Divorce’ by Edward W. Beal and Gloria Hochman (published in 1991 by Delacourte Press, New York), which was a bit of an eye opener. If you are one of those prone to make assumptions about single parent families, see if you can get a copy and have a read. Beal and Hochman’s research found that on the whole adult women of divorce at least did very well for themselves, on the surface, achieving high academic grades and successful careers. Possibly because they feel they have something to prove to themselves, or those that doubted them, or more poignantly because they feel they have something to prove to their absent fathers. None sadly did too well on the relationship front, all being left with the emotional scarring an absent father can inflict and many had at some point self-harmed. They are however survivors. And as for the men, well, take a look at what the St. Michaels Fellowship do and at those who do want to break the pattern their own parents (or lack thereof) have branded on them.
Relationships break down at all echelons of society, fact. Sometimes the break-up is amicable; sometimes it’s not, fact. Whatever or however it happens, if there are children in that relationship, they will suffer some sort of loss and will need to grieve, fact. Not all of them will turn out to be no good trouble makers, in fact very few of them will. With the right support, maybe none of them will and maybe all of them can grow up without holes in their emotional well-being. So how about concentrating on that?
Fast forward to 2013 and this story is the first seed that went into the Brendan Lloyd & Me initiative. Brendan’s single parent family ensured his childhood was at the extreme end of the abuse and neglect scale. A plague that sadly followed him into a far too brief spell as an adult; I can only hope he found peace when he passed.
(*Trichotillomania (TMM) is a condition where a person has an irresistible urge to pull out their own hair. It is believed to affect up to 2% of the population and most sufferers with Trichotillomania are female. The hair pulling is a form of self-harm that acts to provide a short term distraction from immediate worries such as depression, anxiety or anger but the pulling will most likely then fuel a new cycle of all of these feelings. TMM is a rare but devastating condition, but there are those who can help.)