Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

Delia, a single parent, sometimes has men back to stay the night. Recently, her seven-year-old son came in while she was having sex. Will it affect him? And will he also be upset at seeing different men at the breakfast table?
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VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

I KNOW I should be po-faced about this problem. My hands should be raised in the air in horror at the idea of all these blokes popping in and out of Delia's bed. I should recommend that Delia insist that all the men she has to stay leave either at the stroke of midnight or at five in the morning. But having been a single parent myself, at one stage of my life, I know how horribly lonely you can get, and how you long for the comforting warmth of a male body beside you, not just for sex, but for cuddles and companionship. It's not that easy to say, "Get out!", to a person whose presence can actually colour the whole of the following day.

So my arms remain resolutely pinned to the side, and my eyebrows refuse to rise. As long as Delia's son knows in his heart that Delia loves him best, as long as, when he sees these men, he thinks to his little self, "Poor fools. Little do they know they are just part of an ongoing stream. I am the person my mother cares about beyond all others", I don't think it matters terribly whether they appear in the morning or not.

As for witnessing her having sex - while, obviously, it's not something she should encourage, the odd slip is unlikely to traumatise her son. When people had to live all in one room - and in societies where they still do - couples have to have sex, and sometimes the children wake up, and hear and see what's going on. They don't all grow up traumatised. It's not as if sex is an unnatural act. If they were to wake up and see their parents violently assaulting each other, that might be another matter, but seeing the odd moment of sex isn't the end of the world.

Having said all this, there is one other person not taken into account, and that's the visiting male. He should, perhaps, be warned of the presence of the seven-year-old son, because he might feel rather upset to find a small person pottering around in his dressing-gown in the morning. He might well prefer to go home early, rather than face the knowing eyes of a child who has seen it all before. Or he might have his own views on whether it's a good thing for children to see fleeting males in the mornings. His views should be taken into account. In my experience, men can be a lot stuffier and less liberal than women in these situations - or perhaps they are more sensitive and identify more with little boys' sensibilities.

The only reason why it might be slightly better if Delia kept these men rather more out of sight than she does at the moment is because her son might reveal the situation to his real dad or grandparents, who might be shocked, or because - in the unlikely event of her son discussing the breakfast situation at home with friends - he might be made to feel that his family is a bit odd.

But when they don't compare notes, children only know what they know. If they're brought up by homosexual parents, they think it's the norm. If men - or women - come and go in the mornings, then they have the idea that this is what goes on in all families. The important thing with children is not whether the patterns of behaviour within the family are like other families, it's that they feel loved to pieces and secure for as much of their young lives as possible.

For more advice, go to www.virginiaironside.org

READERS SAY

What about the men?

Never mind how Delia's son feels about her rampant promiscuity - has she thought how the "different men" must feel? True, some of these no-strings shaggers are under no illusions that their night with Delia is anything other than a meaningless fling with a commitment-phobic slapper that saves them having to pay a prostitute.

But has Delia ever thought that these men might themselves become upset by her fickleness and by the realisation that she has no intention of long-term fidelity? The fact that she is concerned about the effect on her son shows she knows her behaviour is irresponsible.

F HARVIS

Bristol

No harm done

It's a bit late to be censorious now, isn't it? This woman already has the difficult explanation to offer to the child when he is old enough to understand of where his "real" father is. On the whole, a series of relationships with other people might be more positive than negative - this woman is obviously enjoying them, and her son may actually like to see other faces around the place. She is doing the best she can for herself and I presume for the child as well, and if this is what it is, so what?

As for being damaged by adults having sex - most small children don't take a lot of notice of adults, they tend to think that adults are there to notice them, and as long as the child gets the attention he needs, I doubt that much harm would be done. After all, the kiddie could have wandered into the bedroom if she was making love with his father. Probably lots of couples have to deal with this all the time.

J HARPUM

Belgium

Be more choosy

In my non-monogamous youth I found it very unpleasant to be found in the bed of the mother by her child. Most mothers would never let it happen. It has an unsettling effect on the child, especially if their mother normally allows them to share her bed or come in for a cuddle.

The obvious answer is not to have lots of different men back home. When she meets someone a bit special and they need to stay, the mother must make sure they are seen to use a spare bedroom. The lover must be known and accepted by the child before he can be seen to be sharing his mother's bed.

SPARROW HARRISON

Denbigh

Think about your son

As a single mother myself, I congratulate you on managing to conduct such a lively social life, as I know only too well the obstacles that this life places in your way.

But I can't help thinking there's something a little demeaning about bringing a number of different men to your bed. Are you trying to heal your loneliness? If so, this puts you in a vulnerable position with men. This lifestyle you describe is fine for the young and footloose, but that's not really you. It's only fair to let your son get to know anyone who's likely to be staying overnight and keep casual lovers out of his way.

MO HIGGINS

Brighton

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA

Dear Virginia

I have just turned 30 and, after a year, yet another relationship has ended. This time I broke it up - last time it was the man I was involved with. I just don't get it - all these failed relationships. It's not as if there's a pattern, even. I want children and a partner, but all I seem to have done since I started dating is waste time on the wrong men. How can I find a relationship that lasts?

Yours sincerely, Briony

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a gift box of Thorntons Continental chocolates. Send letters/dilemmas to me by Thursday at `The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, fax 020- 7005 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@ independent.co.uk with a postal address

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