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

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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

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