It feels most odd to be writing this letter to you across what appears to be a chasm of thinking that divides us. Odd because although we are both working mothers and for years were colleagues at the Guardian, we now find ourselves on opposing sides in this great debate about the family. We’ve never talked about it, nor have we written directly about each other’s views. But I know from personal experience that this issue more than any other is a bitter battleground. What makes it so explosive is that the family is about not living as an atomised individual. Yet we live in an individualistic culture which sets as our highest goal the achievement of personal happiness. The family sets extremely inconvenient limits to that individualism. Most people do still aspire to a traditional family life, in which they marry and raise their own children. But more and more people are rejecting the limitations of loyalty, fidelity, duty and responsibility that such a life entails.
You know as well as I do the statistics showing the burgeoning rates of divorce, cohabitation, babies born out of wedlock and so on. These trends are to be regretted because of the damage they entail both to individuals and to our wider civic fabric. As these trends unfold, more and more cultural commentators-academics, journalists, pressure group activists, politicians-are becoming players, through their own lives, in the drama of the fragmenting family. Partly for this reason, the conclusion that “the family isn’t deteriorating, only changing” is not reached from a dispassionate examination of the evidence. Time after time, I have observed ostensible policy discussions about the family which lightly camouflage a justification of personal experience. It is also a discussion which is-ludicrously-politically polarised, with defenders of the traditional family pilloried as reactionaries. True, people like myself wish to “conserve” certain values and structures without which I think we cannot live in a civilised way. But that doesn’t make us any more reactionary than those green conservationists who wish to protect the physical environment from the depredations of selfish individualism. Being green is seen as laudable; but defending the moral ecology is beyond the pale.
I have been astonished by the irrational nature of the attacks on family conservationists by the “not deteriorating, only changing” school. Such people appear to deny the obvious. My starting point has been the damage caused to most children (not all!) by the fracturing of their home life. This seems to me undeniable from looking at schools, prisons or child psychiatric clinics. Of course some children from intact families have troubled home lives. But children from fractured families do worse in every area of life, relatively speaking, than those from intact families. This has been amply demonstrated in research studies here and in the US. Yet I have seen this evidence regularly distorted and ignored by people who usually turn out to be justifying personal circumstances about which they feel guilty. “What do these people want?” an angry academic once asked me about advocates of the traditional family. “Do they want unhappy parents to stay together?” Of course the traditionalists were correct as far as the facts were concerned, he conceded; but where did that get us? Nowhere! And why was everyone so concerned about the rights of the child? What about the rights of the adult? His unprofessional tirade only became intelligible once I discovered that he was going through a messy and acrimonious divorce himself.
This is essentially a struggle between adults who want the freedom to live as they please and the interests of children who need stability, attachments and security. The idea that marriage break-up is good for children because it brings conflict to an end is demonstrably false. I don’t believe that all marriages must endure whatever the circumstances; some should undoubtedly end, in the interests of the adults or the children involved. I am merely alarmed that people have become far too casual about relationships, that commitment has been redefined as a transitory arrangement that can be ended for adult convenience, without reference to the consequences for children. Not all children from fragmented families are harmed, but the dice are loaded against them. I am concerned not just for them but for the civic values of our societies which are learned within the family. I believe that other people matter, that altruism is important and that duty and responsibility keep a civilised society together. These values no longer exist where family life is junked in the interests of individual fulfilment. We lost these values from political life in 1979. To me, the unbridled self-interest unleashed by libertarian Tory economics finds its unacceptable mirror image in the social libertarianism of the fragmented family.
You may have wondered over the past few years why I appeared to have become embattled within the liberal culture to which I still subscribe. This is why.
With best wishes,
Over the years I have read your columns with growing surprise and, I must admit, often a gnashing of teeth. I am not particularly interested in whether we can define the moral agenda as being essentially of the left or right, though I realise that your left wing past urges you to square the two. Tony Blair has laid such vociferous claim to moral and family values that I think it no longer a left/right question. Perhaps you are right to say that “moral decay” set in with Thatcherite selfishness. Perhaps the Tories are right in dating the “collapse of the family” from the libidinous 1960s.
I doubt, though, that couples entering on marriage full of optimism or couples enduring the pain of divorce are busy examining their ideological credentials. It’s a bit of a low blow to accuse your critics of using specious arguments to justify their own bad marital behaviour. For the record, I am a widow and was married to my husband for 22 years; like you and your husband, neither of us was ever divorced. But you are right in one way: I do draw on my own personal experience of divorce and family to offer a less alarmist view of how families can still prosper after divorce so long as adults behave in a civilised way and treat their children well.
My mother was divorced twice; I was brought up with assorted half-siblings and we all saw each other regularly. My father and his wife visited often; whatever tensions there were, we were protected from them. We are still a close family, meeting twice a week, usually more. My children are surrounded by half- uncles, half-aunts and even the daughter of my stepfather by his second wife-a sort of step-aunt-who is the same age as my 11 year old. These relationships provide a rich and fulfilling family life for my fatherless children. I think I, too, had a rich and fulfilling childhood with a father and stepfather, neither of whom counted much in comparison with my all-important mother. In many families, fathers are all but absent, and most of literature and autobiography describes a distant relationship. The quality of life with the mother matters more.
What I am struggling to describe is a life where the precise structure of the family, as seen by politicians peering through the lace curtains, doesn’t much matter. What matters is the quality of consistent love, care, attention and security the children grow up with.
Now you may say that it is more likely that a child will receive love and security from a stable family, with its two natural parents; you might be right. But what if you are? What on earth can anyone actually do to force people to stay married? Unless you propose some moral Cromwellian revolution I do not think you will persuade people to return to a life where marriage is destiny. Good people make honest mistakes and as a result make one another miserable in bad marriages. I regard their right to divorce as more important than many other civil liberties, from freedom of speech to the freedom to vote. Yoking the miserable together for eternity because of some youthful folly is a cruelty we will simply not return to. It was achieved in the past by economic and social pressures, above all by shame-of a kind I hope we shall not see again.
You suggest that those who divorce are feckless, reckless sexual adventurers who just want fun, fun, fun. All the evidence suggests otherwise. The best research (yes, we can swap sociology until the cows come home) is from Professor Gwynn Davis’ study of divorcing couples. He was struck by how much unhappiness people endured for how long before finally deciding to part. Relate and divorce lawyers attest to the same thing. That is hardly surprising, since the penalties for divorce are high-a man loses his home and daily contact with his children, they both lose a lot of money and the woman struggles to bring up children alone. And yet they do it, because the alternative is worse. The myth of the “savable” marriage, to be rescued by Labour’s compulsory counselling, is just political point scoring.
No, political energy should go into supporting all children. Parents often need help. Marriage does not necessarily make good mothers, nor divorce make bad ones. In divorce there is a wide difference between children who do well and those who do badly, depending on whether they keep in touch with both parents, are protected from bitter rows and have enough love and security. Your energy would be better spent on finding ways to teach people to be better parents, rather than trying to get them to stay together. I don’t see this as any kind of “liberal” ideology, just common sense.
Come, come; why be so coy about your own arguments? Where’s the
advocate of hedonism that we’re familiar with from your Independent column? As I recall, “fun, fun, fun” is precisely what you have so persuasively advocated. Unfortunately, though, this can have consequences for others which aren’t so jolly. Divorce does not merely liberate people who are dreadfully unhappy in marriage. It also sanctions opportunistic behaviour, including walking out on the family in pursuit of personal fulfilment, leaving behind a devastated spouse and children, or breaking up someone else’s marriage and harming someone else’s spouse and children.
Divorce should be available for those whose marriages really are intolerable. But the problem is we’re redefining intolerability to include the merely less than perfect. That redefinition has been fuelled in part by a failure to acknowledge the consequences of separation-financial, practical and emotional-for ourselves, our spouses or our children. It works for some; and good luck to them. But many divorced people say they now regret embarking on a course, the consequences of which they never fully appreciated.
It’s disingenuous to talk merely of “honest mistakes.” You say you hope shame is a thing of the past. But I think people should be ashamed if they cause pain and misery to other people. Are you really saying that if people cheat on their spouses, abandon their children or help break up someone else’s family they should feel no shame? That’s tantamount to saying people should kiss goodbye to a moral sense. But then, I’ve often been baffled by your ire at “moralising.” If we believe that moral codes are essential for a civilised society-and I’m sure you do-then we surely need to express our disapproval when people behave badly towards each other.
I don’t want to force people to stay married. But marriage is being progressively written out of the script. I’d like people to list a rather more realistic set of factors in their personal happiness balance sheets when making their family choices. Maybe the fragmenting family is an irreversible social revolution. But it’s being fuelled by the fantasy that people can have all the benefits of marriage without any of the hard work. You suggest we should emphasise not marriage but good parenting and children’s need for love and security. But the care and commitment that are the essentials of good parenting depend upon the parent living with the child. To support children, we should support marriage-precisely the purpose for which it was invented.
With best wishes,
I can’t help chuckling at your tone of voice. You have a habit of making your readers feel they are up before the moral beak: I feel like the bad girl called into the head’s office to explain “fun.” Although that was not my point, I will take up at least the hem of the hedonist mantle you throw over me, though I recognise it is a trap-like a gladiator’s net.
You are right to take us to the heart of things, for we see the world through very different eyes. I detect in your writing a rather grim moral fortitude, in which this vale of tears is to be struggled through with little expectation of happiness. Your words suggest that we can make something of this miserable world only if we do the right thing, so at least on our deathbed we can congratulate ourselves that the moral certainties have been fulfilled, pain endured and justice done to all. That is not ignoble, but it is not enough. It is not the view of life I would wish to hand down to my children. I would urge them to reach out for more, because so much more is offered-great happiness, even brief moments of unmixed joy, alongside misery and times when it all seems meaningless. If I were unhappily married you would, I suppose, urge me to put up with it for the sake of the children. Why? Because children draw much of their future view of life from their parents’ values. But they would then feel the weight of a dour, loveless and quarrelsome marriage-a sad model for them to carry through life and burdening them with the sense that they should be grateful to their unhappy parents for staying together. Your intent, I suppose, would be to impress the same moral values on them, so that when they grew up they too would eschew pleasure for duty. They too would endure unhappy marriages. Even unto the tenth generation each would take up the chains forged by their parents.
But I have been snared into your hedonist net. In real life people rarely separate without great pain and years of unhappiness. Your picture of people casually sauntering out of marriages in search of instant sexual adventure is largely untrue. Most people are not compulsive ecstasy-seekers: simple contentment is hard enough to come by and people are grateful when they find it.
I still cannot see how these very personal decisions are a matter for public policy. But for all your hand-wringing, you never say what you want governments to do about it.
There you go again, reaching for the caricature. It bears no relation to reality, but what the hell. It’s so easy to pillory people who believe in the value of self-restraint or altruism. So boring, isn’t it, while you romantically buckle your swash. But anyone would think I was proposing compulsory penal suffering for all adults and double-time on the rack for the kids. It is possible, you know, to have a good time and be responsible! All I am saying is that selfish behaviour causes pain and sometimes harm to vulnerable people left in its wake, and therefore people should think twice before behaving in such a way if they want to live in a civilised society. Is that really so unacceptable to you? Clearly it is. It appears that for you, the duty to avoid harming others wherever possible is a passport to hell. I’m simply staggered by your equation of responsibility with personal misery. We all want our children to be happy. But are you really teaching your children that they should grasp happiness even where it may do actual harm?
I am concerned with the happiness of children and am very aware that for most (not all) children in voluntarily disrupted families, being brought up without a father, or with a succession of “fathers,” is a recipe for maladjustment that can last well into their adult lives. That’s the burden they bear. Sometimes such disruption is the lesser of two evils. But it must be avoided wherever possible. As for policies, I’m forever writing about how law or welfare does or doesn’t support family life. But what the state can do is limited. People will only adjust their behaviour if their perspective changes about its likely consequences. This is hearts and minds stuff; which is precisely why I write about it.
With best wishes,
Self-restraint and altruism are not boring; but they are sometimes misplaced. Lifetimes can be sadly wasted in self-sacrifice that turns out to have done no one else much good. Children are frequently not grateful for it later in life and it can leave the bitterest of empty nests.
All the same, we share much the same moral universe. We both try to instill into our children the same values: treating others well and recognising social responsibilities.
I like your confidence in the power of our newspaper pens to change hearts and minds. In the great cacophony of words, I wonder what effect we really have? I tend to think the job of journalism is to describe the world for our readers, rather than try to change their views.
What concerns me most is the failure of politicians to focus on solutions to the problems caused by divorce, which you rightly identify. How much hot air is wasted in parliament exhorting people to stay married-spitting in the wind of social change. They should be seeking practical remedies instead.
While you are right that most research shows that children of divorce do worse, you must also know that to compare them with children of happy marriages is meaningless; and to compare them with the children of unhappily married couples who stay together for their sake is methodologically impossible. But we do know that there is a great difference between those children who do very well and those who do badly after divorce. Policy makers should give attention to the far more fruitful business of helping all children of divorce do as well as the best. I think your grin and bear it message will go the way of Canute’s feet and I’m tempted to send you a pair of galoshes.
With very best wishes,