When it comes to getting married, I’m with Mae West, who once quipped, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” Nor are lots of us, apparently, regardless of whether we have children. The Office of National Statistics threw a nice, juicy bone to right-wing commentators and Conservative MPs this week when it released statistics suggesting that within three years, more children will be born out of wedlock than to married couples.
There’s nothing like a good moral panic to generate column inches, especially with the silly season almost upon us and the excitement of Wimbledon over and done with, and so the inevitable bemoaning of the decline of marriage and the detrimental effects upon children began appearing immediately these statistics were released. The former children’s minister, Tim Loughton, urged the Government to do more to support marriage through tax breaks. Speaking to the Telegraph, Mr Loughton warned of the perils of raising a child in a broken home. It is his belief that without a marriage certificate to control them, people “drift in and out of relationships very easily”. He also claimed that, “in families where parents break up, children do less well at school, are more likely to suffer mental health problems and are more likely to have substance abuse problems.” If you are a single parent, it appears you may as well throw in the towel now and accept your child’s grim fate.
I am not entirely sure where Mr Loughton takes the evidence for his claims from, but crude statistics can be interpreted in a variety of ways and only ever reveal part of a complex picture. The figures released by the ONS do not tell us how many of these children are born to single mothers, and how many are born to cohabiting couples – many of whom will go on to marry, or at least remain together for many years.
The very phrase “born out of wedlock” reeks of times past, when single mothers were considered a disgrace and their offspring were referred to as “little bastards”. I hope that nobody would yearn for a return to such days, although with the recent rolling back of the welfare state, you have to wonder.
All the evidence I have ever seen suggests the single most important factor determining a child’s life chances is not whether their parents are married, but whether or not they are poor. As groups like the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have shown time and again, children who are born poor are fairly likely to stay that way, regardless of whether or not their parents are married. Children born to affluent parents are much more likely to go to good universities and to land highly paid jobs, and family breakdown in middle-class families does not show a significant detrimental effect on the life chances of their children. Take heart, readers - children do not generally end up in the crack house, the nut house or the slammer just because their mummy and daddy split up when they were seven.
This is not to say that family breakdown is not difficult and painful for all concerned. Of course it is, but a child’s happiness rests more on feeling secure, safe and loved, whether or not this is within a traditional, nuclear family. In the Telegraph again, Laura Perrins claims: “Separation and divorce happen, but marriage is the gold standard”. Surely she meant “happy marriage”?
My parents were unhappily married for most of my childhood, so I am only too aware of the negative impact this can have on kids. When I was eight, my mum and dad separated temporarily, following two years of hammer-and-tongs arguing, mostly caused by the stresses and strains of unemployment – love on the dole is far from romantic. I felt relief, I think, because the shouting stopped and they became civil to one another. As I still saw my dad every day, I felt no sense of abandonment. I was not particularly pleased when they got back together, especially when the slanging matches resumed. I remember very clearly how my brother and sister and I would be woken from our beds by the escalating sound of their arguing, and would huddle together at the top of the stairs, on red alert to see if intervention would be necessary – as it was, occasionally. Seeing the drama of an unhappy marriage played out before you is possibly far more psychologically harmful to a child than separation itself. My parents eventually split up for good, and once again became civil. These days, they are friends.
As long as a child is loved and cared for and has their needs met, does it matter if their parents are married to each other? It is better if both parents are in their life, certainly, but only if those parents are both loving. Rather one decent parent than two lousy ones. It may be true that marriage is harder to walk away from than a cohabiting relationship, but staying together “for the sake of the children” is not always the best thing for anyone, anyway.
Marriage is, first and foremost, a religious institution, and as such seems increasingly anachronistic as society becomes ever more secular. Of course, civil ceremonies have been available for years now, but the original concept of marriage – of a virgin bride being “given away” by her father to another man – is so outmoded as to be ludicrous. Marriage has also become a very expensive business, with the average wedding costing close to £22,000 – another reason why poorer people are less likely to marry.
Scare stories about the unhappy outcomes of children born to unmarried parents do nobody any favours. They simply serve to mask the real causes of inequality in our society. If the parents in poor families all got married, would their problems suddenly be solved? Of course not.