Deborah Orr: The social ills caused by family breakdown cannot be ignored

A jaundiced view of the state of parenting in Britain is hardly surprising

Share
Related Topics

Mr Justice Coleridge has been working in family law for 37 years, for the last eight years as a judge. So it's safe to say that he has seen a lot of warring families in his time, families in which the adults are so unable to put the needs of their children first that they prefer to drag their problems through the courts, each seeking the mediation of strangers, and – usually – a vindication of their own view accompanied by a satisfying rejection of that of their ghastly, impossible, former partner.

It's not surprising, therefore, that he has developed a jaundiced view of the state of parenting in Britain, one that he expressed aggressively in a speech at parliament to the Family Holiday Association on Tuesday evening. The judge wants a change of attitude that would attach a "stigma" to those who "destroy" family life and said that a National Commission should be established to devise solutions for the epidemic of broken homes. "The reaffirmation of marriage as the gold standard," he said, "would be a start."

As if that was not quite clear enough, he added that he was referring to "the endless game of 'musical relationships' or 'pass the partner', in which a significant proportion of the population is engaged. "Children," he added, "are caught up in the conflict of their parents' unresolved relationship issues and it can leave them scarred, sometimes severely scarred, for life."

The judge was careful to say that people who live together as good parents, but are not married, deserve the same support as those who are. He was careful also to say that he was not suggesting that people should be trapped in relationships that were genuinely unhappy or abusive. All he was saying, really, was that people are mad to have children with one person, then decide that it would be more thrilling or exciting or self-fulfilling to pursue other romantic or sexual adventures with other people after all. (Or even live life under the assumption that the having of children should not interfere with an entirely free and unencumbered life in the first place). He's right, of course.

How did we ever manage to reach a point where such observations are controversial, rather than self-evident? And how did we ever – since the Judge's comments have been routinely reported as anti-Labour and pro-Conservative – reach a point where private moral issues became a means of party political point-scoring?

Justice Coleridge answered that latter question, in part, himself: "Although, superficially, these are private issues, they become matters of public concern when they are happening on such a huge scale and affect detrimentally such a significant proportion of the population". The social problems related to the breakdown of the traditional family are now, and have been for years, just too big to ignore.

It might, to a person looking at the situation without knowledge of its history, seem odd that nanny New Labour, which likes to tell us all what to do, where to go and what to eat, is seen here as the laissez-faire party. Usually it is the Conservatives who demand the rolling back of the state, but on this issue they call for much more meddling and manipulating.

Arch-Conservatives say that Labour defends "alternative lifestyles" because the breakdown of the family leads to reliance on the state, and Labour always wishes to expand its influence, and therefore its voting base, at the expense of all else. The feminist left tells a different story, though – in which the old strictures of children-within-marriage meant the subjugation of female sexuality, the shunning of girls or women who were "caught", and of their offspring, and the assumption that women were not even worth educating because after marriage they dedicated themselves entirely to husband and to children, giving up financial independence to do so.

It's not marriage per se that the left is wary of. It's the imbalance of sacrifice that traditional ideas about marriage and sex also promulgated. That is not to deny, however, that the wholesale jettisoning of such rigid discrimination has not created its own dreadful problems, problems that look most ugly when relaxed sexual and procreative mores are examined in a setting of poverty and ignorance.

Yet even now, after decades of feminism, the gender pay gap confirms that having children does indeed damage the financial independence and career ambitions of women, whatever their socio-economic status. The studies illustrating that life is very hard on single mothers and their children, particularly in low-income households, are legion. The amazing thing is that even though time and social change has amply illustrated how very demanding it is to bring up a child, people more than ever seem to tend to have children without much thought as to what this will mean in the future.

Could Justice Coleridge's suggestion of a National Commission really result in the devising of a formula that would persuade people to think harder, be more aware of the commitment they ought to be making, and understand better the sacrifices that may be necessary before bringing up children well? Or actually, after all, wasn't that just what the traditional process of courtship and marriage was, at its most benign, in place to do?

At their most rarified and courtly – or nowadays among the most religiously observant of families – the rituals of courtship had distinct and stuffily useful stages. A period of celibacy was expected, so that people could see how they got along when they could not close gaps in conversation with intercourse. How many relationships break up because "the spark is gone" or "I just don't fancy him any more"? Then there was engagement, a period when sexual compatibility could be tested, carefully, while financial and practical arrangements for married life were made. Again, pretty sensible, and sensible too to bail out if you got cold feet. The theory was that all this faffing about gave people time to think about what they were letting themselves in for, and form a picture of what family life might be like.

The reality was that as society became more sophisticated, the imagined family life, for educated women, looked more and more like a straightjacket. Put simply, the less that women were prepared to give up life outside the home, and put up with any sort of awful behaviour, for marriage, the less appealing the institution became to men as well.

Justice Coleridge's reading of the situation – whereby men and women are too keen on sexual adventure, and not keen enough on married life – is too simplistic. Many things are wrong, but a huge part of the problem is that great emphasis has been put on minimising the difficulties mothers may face in obtaining childcare so that the can stay in the labour market, and little emphasis has been placed on the idea that for families to thrive and be happy, parents generally have to expect to spend quite a bit of time at home, looking after each other, as well as the kids.

Post-female liberation, that means that fathers must expect to spend more time at home, in order that women can spend less time at home. In the absence of such a societal shift, couples are buckling under the strain and the grind of family life. If marriage is to be the "gold standard', then "stigma" must attach to fathers who expect their careers or social lives to remain unchanged by the arrival of a family.

At the moment, such stigma as there is, still attaches to working, partying, globe-trotting or reality-show contesting mothers, and only in the most gross of circumstances to similarly detached dads.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Liberal Democrats leader says efforts need to be focused on cracking down on the criminal gangs  

Nick Clegg: We should to go to war on drugs, not on addicts

Nick Clegg
East German border guards stand on a section of the Berlin wall in front of the Brandenburg gate on November 11, 1989  

Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary’s PM thinks it is Western capitalism that is in its death throes

Peter Popham
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes