It has been far too often that we in One Family have had to reassure and comfort upset parents in response to the latest negative portrayals of children in one-parent families in the media.
Reassuringly the gaps between these onslaughts have become longer and each time I think that perhaps they have ended and that perhaps people now realise that positioning one type of family as better than others is finally unacceptable. But the past few weeks of the referendum campaign has shown us that the No side don’t have qualms about (mis)using children.
Shockingly unrepeatable things were said about both girls and boys who grow up with single mothers at a recent campaign launch by a No side organisation. That these things were said by someone advocating for ‘family values’ is difficult to understand. But what is more incredible about them being said in the media is that they are absolutely not true.
No posters on lampposts have also touched a nerve with many people who have grown up in one-parent families and adoptive families as well as those who are parenting alone. There are countless testimonies on social media as well as some in print media of people explaining just how offended they are by the implications that children don’t do as well unless they are reared by their biological mother in a married heterosexual relationship.
This negative message may be directly felt by a massive proportion of our population. Consider all the birthparents who relinquished their children for adoption, all the adoptive children and adults, all the adoptive parents and all of their families. Consider all the one-parent families who have been created through separation, divorce, bereavement, relationship breakdown or the strong desire of a single person to become a parent. Consider all the step-parents, children in residential or foster-care, the children who are living in same-sex headed families and anyone who has used assisted human reproduction technologies. As a society do we really want to support messages that say that all of these children don’t have as good lives as children in married families?
What we must remember is that real children hear and read what is said about them. We need to consider what effects these negative views have on children, their parents, families as well as their teachers, friends, community and classmates. How hard must it be for a child to go into school if everyone around them heard what was said about their supposed fate?
We have recently heard from the Psychological Society of Ireland about the negative impacts on LGBT people of the ongoing debate in the referendum; based on our experience of providing services to one-parent families, One Family contends that the children and parents we work with also have their mental health, self-esteem and confidence diminished by attacks on their family type.
So how are children in one-parent families and single-sex headed families actually doing? Well the truth is reassuring and confirms what the vast majority of Irish people see and experience in their daily lives. Children in ‘non-traditional’ families are doing fine except for the fact that society has managed to make their lives a bit harder than it needs to be.
More and more high quality, peer-reviewed research has become available in Ireland and abroad on exactly how children’s wellbeing intersects with family type. Let’s take the recent Growing up in a One-Parent Family study undertaken by the Department of Sociology in the University of Limerick where data collected on the 8,500 9 years olds was analysed in terms of child wellbeing indicators and family structure. Complex statistical analysis led the researchers to the conclusion that ‘the major finding of the current study, as it relates to policy, is that once socio-economic background differences are taken into account, the association between negative child out comes and living in a one-parent or cohabiting family is substantially reduced. The apparent benefits to marriage as they relate to child development appear not related to marriage per se but to the background characteristics of those who marry. The implication is that family structure does not have a major direct influence on child out comes.’
So there we have it, large scale Irish research tells us that we don’t need to worry about promoting marriage, we need to worry about resourcing parents with enough education, income and social opportunities. If we do this their children will flourish. This chimes with the messages coming from all the major children’s organisations in the country which is that what children need is love, security and enough resources.
Of course the other children’s expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon who is Ireland’s special rapporteur on child protection has also repeatedly said that it is not family form that determines outcomes for children but the substance of family relationships.
So why would individuals and organisations claiming to represent the interests of children and families say such unpleasant and untruthful things about children? Well maybe a quick reflection on our history and the possible connections in thinking and ideology provides us with some clues. Ireland as a state and the Catholic Church in particular have a shameful history in dealing with families that do not toe the line in their terms. We are all too familiar with the removal of children from widowed fathers, the Magdalene laundries, forced and anonymous adoptions, the threats of the anti-divorce and anti-contraception campaigners and much more.
These issues sit very closely with this organisation as we were founded in 1972 by a few brave women who decided to keep and raise their children themselves even though they were not married. Our memory does not even have to be that long as some parents we work with now report derogatory experiences simply because they are parenting alone, separated or sharing parenting of their children.
As a state we have begun to make some amends and One Family welcomed the terms of reference into the Commission of Investigation in the Mother & Baby Homes. We look forward to the social narrative that will be undertaken that will help us make sense of how this forced incarceration was not just let happen but promoted by some ordinary people.
The other issue that One Family has to address is the ongoing assertion that if civil marriage rights are extended to same-sex couples that this somehow negatively affects single or one-parent families. We spent some time reflecting on this and genuinely trying to understand what it meant. We looked at the relevant legislation and the conclusion we have come to is that again this is simply not the case.
It is true that due to the fact that our Constitution only recognises marital families that all unmarried families whether headed by one or two parents will continue to remain outside the Constitution but extending rights to more people to marry will not negatively affect them. If people are really concerned about this then a call to extend the Constitutional definition of family might be worth reflecting on in the future, but I suspect that this might also be resisted by the those very people who are currently campaigning for a No vote in the marriage referendum.
So our standard as a country and society simply has to be that it is not acceptable to speak about and represent children anymore in untruthful and negative terms.
Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family, Ireland’s national organisation for one-parent families