Sarah Churchwell: Don't buy into the fiction of the 'single-parent family'

The Commons' passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill without the Tories' proposed "common-sense" amendments insisting on a "father or male role model" has sparked yet another debate about children's need for father-figures.

The Tories trotted out all the old chestnuts about fatherless children being more likely to have educational, social or behavioural problems, despite the fact that anyone with a rudimentary grasp of logic knows that correlations do not establish causation. Here's a bombshell: it may be that children without fathers have social and academic problems because the vast majority of such children and their mothers are also without money.

As someone raised by a "single mother" who miraculously managed to become a productive, happy member of society, let me point out the crucial role played by class and economics. Both my parents are well-educated professionals; so are their children. What a coincidence. Moreover, the examples of immensely successful people raised without positive male influences are legion; off the top of my head: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey were all raised by single mothers who didn't have much money (a tautology, for the most part), with the help of grandparents.

So – again, speaking logically – neither money nor positive male role models constitutes a necessary or a sufficient condition for producing a successful adult. Or perhaps it's just my fellow Americans who are able to succeed without a male influence? In point of fact, I had a very positive male influence. My father made serious sacrifices to remain an active, and constructive, presence in his daughters' lives. But let me point out the obvious. I didn't succeed because my father was male; I succeeded because he was active and constructive.

The whole idea of the "single- parent family" is, in my experience, something of a fiction. There are not very many people in our society, if any, who can raise a child entirely without assistance. How could you? In fact, the vast majority of us, despite concerns about the diffusion of the extended family, are raised more or less collectively, with disproportionate assistance provided by grandmothers.

The "single-parent household", however, is another story. That is all too common, and all too painful. We all know the difficulties for the parent, which can basically be summed up by the word "exhaustion". Without a partner, parenting exhausts all of your economic, social, emotional and physical resources.

For the child, speaking for myself, the difficulty is about power structures. Parents are dictators; if you're lucky they're benevolent ones (all of mine were), but even benevolent tyranny can be hard to take. My adolescence was defined by one overwhelming emotion: frustration. I lived in world ruled by diktat, with no court of appeals. I would have loved another adult in the house. But despite that, I have always hated the phrase "broken home." My home wasn't broken. It split, and multiplied, like parthenogenesis.

When it came to parental influences, I was spoiled for choice: mother, father, stepmother, all four grandparents, and assorted aunts and uncles, all of whom took an active interest in me. The Tories would thus, no doubt, take me as evidence of their thesis. Whatever successes I have had, they would say, are patently due to the influence of my father in my life. But surely my mother, as primary caregiver, deserves primary credit? And I rarely needed a male perspective; I just needed an alternative one.

Among the various adults caring for me were people struggling with drinking problems, depression, money anxieties, unhappy relationships, failed professional ventures – nothing particularly shocking, just the ordinary pain of ordinary lives. But other people were there to pick up the pieces when one adult dropped them. And so I was raised.

No one person can be the alpha and omega of another's existence; that is too much pressure for any fragile, fallible human being to bear. Most of us recognise the importance of friendships in addition to romantic partners as part of an extended adult support system. There is no reason why parenting can't work the same way.

Whether those parental figures should be mother and father, or mother and mother, or father and grandmother, or father and father, has everything to do with the resources – emotional, mental, financial, educational – of the parents in question. The Tories insist that it is just common sense to "retain a male influence in a child's upbringing, providing a balanced outlook to society". The idea that balanced viewpoints come from chromosomal variety is the silliest thing I've heard in a long time. Here's another bombshell: whether children are better off with a father in their lives depends entirely upon the father.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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