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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game