When my husband left me with two small children in 1966 the divorce laws were antiquated. He had to arrange to be caught by a chambermaid and a detective in bed with a young woman in a hotel room in Brighton. This farce was supposed to prove his adultery, although she was just a, not the young woman. The court didn't care. Any young woman would do.
In those days less than 5 per cent of families were headed by a lone parent and I felt lonely. Taking the children to the supermarket or the park at weekends, every other family in the world seemed headed by two parents. I was the first among my contemporaries to divorce, and most people were upset and shocked. Most also assumed it was my fault, although he had gone to live with his secretary. It was up to me to 'hold on to my man'.
But at least I was only 26, not 36, let alone 46 - by which time it would have been a lot harder to do what I had to do: get a job, take on the mortgage, learn what it meant to be the breadwinner and head of the family. Looking back now, I'm grateful to the feckless young man who walked out on that bleak October evening and, in so doing, forced me to become an independent adult.
But I will never accept the weaselly mendacity of the image - created by sociologists, educationists and, I'm afraid, journalists - of the family his desertion turned us into. Take this headline from the Timeslast week: 'The children of lone parents tend to do badly at school, suffer more illnesses and are likely to die earlier, according to some sociologists'.
There is a real killer paragraph in this article; the very thing to break the fragile confidence of an exhausted young woman trying to do by herself what it used to take two parents, four grandparents and a host of uncles and aunts to do (or, in the case of the upper classes, a nanny, two nursemaids, a governess, cook, groom and ghillie). It says: 'Sociologists such as Professor Halsey of Nuffield argue that the children of lone parents tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to crime and deviance and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they have been formed.'
Professor Halsey, an eminent sociologist, is 70. His family memories date from a neater, stricter time. Has he made long-term predictions for the future of children from nice middle-class nuclear families, headed by fathers who, in today's competitive world, are often workaholic, absent or bullying? Does he stigmatise the offspring of politicians, diplomats, lawyers or doctors? Yet he would find a lot of 'tend-tos' among that lot, and some very 'unstable parenting'.
I was once told by the wife of a house-master at Eton that she had never come across so many emotionally starved boys. But do the headlines say: 'Public school children tend to suffer due to parents' absence and emotional coldness'? No, yet the emotionally-frigid ex-public schoolboy is a sadly familiar figure. Are their parents dubbed 'freezer Dads' or 'fly-away Mums'? They are not. Were children whose fathers died during the war, leaving widowed mothers to bring them up, called 'deprived', or deemed likely to die earlier? Certainly not.
How many 'lone parents' did Professor Halsey visit in their matchboxes on the 23rd floor of a tower block? Was the lift broken the day he went? Did the doctor turn out in the middle of the night if called? Was an NHS bed available for Kevin's asthma? And might not these facts have something to do with their tendency to be sickly, unemployed and die early?
Why are today's 2 million children from a home with just one parent deemed to be inherently unfortunate? Is not their misfortune created by politicians and society, which first deprive them of support and then utter dire predictions about their future health, happiness and success? Do these not become self-fulfilling, just because they are so widely touted?
What are mothers supposed to do? Abort? Hand over their babies for adoption? Or is the subtext that if they had kept their knees together, none of this would have happened?
Back for the last time to that report in the Times. 'Nearly 90 per cent of lone-parent families are headed by women.' (No surprise there, surely?) 'By far the most are young working-class women living on low incomes.' This, too, is obvious, since most babies are born to young women, and most women are working class, not middle or upper class. 'About 70 per cent receive income support, with 40 per cent entirely dependent on the state.' Here is the crux; here the accusatory note that has John Redwood and his ilk up in arms.
But tell me again, what are they supposed to do? With high unemployment, how are these young mothers to support themselves and their children if the father hasn't stayed around to help?
Yes? You there . . . rubicund gentleman at the back in a cravat? You think they should get a job at Woolworth's, sir? Do you know what Woolworth's pays its salesgirls? Do you know what a child-minder costs? Believe me, by the time you've deducted the latter from the wages, there won't be enough money left for food and rent, never mind something over to 'smarten herself up a bit', as you suggest.
Anyone else? Lady in the front with two dogs . . . Get hold of the father and jolly well make him pay up? Have you any idea, madam, just how difficult this is, even now that we have the Child Support Agency?
Finally, bear in mind this unpalatable fact: the children of today are the adults who, when we are old and helpless, the victims of decline and lives of self-indulgence, will have to decide whether the state should support us or whether we should be abandoned to our fate. If we are to deserve mercy and kindness then, it is up to us to demonstrate compassion now.Reuse content