Last week we held our first training day for professionals working with alienated children and their families at Facebook Headquarters in London. We were delighted to have the support of Facebook for this event because we know that social media already plays and will play an increasingly significant role in keeping children in close relationship with their parents after separation. For this first training day we had a number of practitioners from different disciplines and we considered, amongst other questions, the rights of the child.
One of the key questions we considered was the right of the child to have a relationship with both parents after separation. This is a fundamental question for practitioners in my view, because the answer that one gives to that question will underpin the work that is done with families. It was a stark and for me at least, cold reminder, that one of the biggest victories of the women’s rights/single parent lobby, has been to remove the belief from our society that children have a right to both of their parents after separation. In our training room, the stark divide between those who believe that children do have a right to a relationship with both parents and those who do not, was underpinned by the mantra you cannot say that children have a right to both parents because that stigmatises single parents….This deeply ingrained value has been steadily carved into the collective psychology of practitioners over four decades of women’s rights based support to separated families and it was present in the room last week. Interestingly, not where you would expect it to be, CAFCASS practitioners and Social Workers who were present did not hold that view, for others however, it is the bedrock of practice around the separated family.
Working with separated families in the shadow of that mantra is, in my experience, one of the biggest stumbling blocks that practitioners face when trying to assist families where children have been alienated from one of their parents. For it is that view and that value, that one cannot talk about the rights and needs of children to have a relationship with both of their parents, that actually underpins much of the alienating behaviour that we see in separated families in this country. If one believes, as many people easily and airily suggest, that children are not affected by family separation and that losing a parent has little impact upon them, then it is a short step to being able to dismiss the right of the child to a relationship with both of their parents after separation. After which, the only real thing that matters is that single parents are not stigmatised because children do not have any other rights or need beyond one parent being financially secure enough to prevent them from living in poverty.
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. As long as we do not think about it, hear about it or see the impact, we will not speak about it. The single parent lobby has achieved an astounding victory over the past forty years in ensuring that those who work with separated families follow this approach. And in the past three years, under a Coalition Government which came into power making clear statements about the rights and needs of children to have a relationship with both parents after separation, I have watched as that same mantra has ensured victory once again in keeping those hands over the ears, eyes and mouths of some of our key policy makers and practitioners. We cannot talk about the impact of separation on children because that stigmatises single parents. And so the rights of children, to a relationship with both sides of their genetic heritage, are simply not engaged with. Suffer the little children, whose rights and needs are eclipsed by those of one of their parents (usually, although not always, their mother).
So what of the right of children to have a relationship with both of their parents? Where do you stand on that key question. I confess, as someone who was a single parent when my daughter was born, that I struggled for many years with this value. My daughter’s father left me before she was born, I had every excuse in the world to jump on that single parent bandwagon and proclaim that my needs came before all else. I was that stereotypical abandoned mother, I could have sung from the hymn sheet of the ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ brigade for the rest of mine and my daughters life. But I didn’t. Why?
I didn’t because I recognised from the earliest days of my daughter’s life that she had arrived in a world where all children are born from the meeting of an egg and a sperm. Many people said to me in her early days how sad it was that she did not have a father. It seemed a ridiculous notion to me, that my daughter did not have a father. Of course she had a father, she wouldn’t be on the planet if she did not have a father. That basic understanding and acceptance, that a child has a biological mother and a biological father, underpinned all of my care of my child for the next two decades onwards. It propelled me towards working as hard as I could with her father to find a way to build a relationship between them, overcoming my own feelings about his behaviour to continue to work with him. It moved me onwards and forwards in my working life, to understand the way in which children conceptualise their heritage and relationships with each side of themselves. It took me into working with same sex relationships and understanding how donor children navigate their origins and it also lead me into working with adopted children and understanding how they deal with the big question of biological beginnings in the context of relational security with their adoptive parents.
It lead me to believe that all children, without exception, have the right to have access to knowledge about their genetic heritage and, where at all possible, to have the right to a relationship with both of their natural parents. Its not a popular view in this day and age where the women’s rights lobby have more or less eradicated the idea that biology has any meaning at all, but it is one which is borne of working with and understanding children and the world that they live in.
There will be those who throw up their hands and decide that in holding this belief I am dismissing same sex parenting. Not so. I can happily accept same sex parenting AND at the same time hold the belief that children have the right to know their genetic heritage. After all, we have not yet come to a place where children can be created by the joining of two eggs or two sperm. Children are created by the meeting of an egg and a sperm and whether that meeting is between the sheets or in a petri dish, only a man and a woman can contribute the distinct and different genetic material that produces a child. It seems to me that in this world of social parenthood it is entirely possible for children to be raised by parents both biological and non biological AND maintain knowledge and connection with both sides of their genetic heritage. To fail to offer that opportunity to children is, in my view, to put adult rights and needs above children’s.
Many practitioners working with separated families will say that they are child focused in their approach and yet, when asked, will comfortably state that children are not affected by family separation, that only conflict affects them and that it is wrong to say that children need both parents because that stigmatises single parents. I often wonder how those practitioners conceptualise the psychological tasks that face children in separated families or how they understand the reasons why children become alienated. For it seems to me that the single parent lobby has created the perfect conditions for alienation to occur in children. Firstly ensuring that children’s rights to a relationship with both sides of their genetic heritage are obscured by the rights of women not to be stigmatised and then widely proclaiming, using academic ‘evidence’ from feminist researchers, that children are not affected by separation. From there it is but a short step to convincing people that fathers are quite simply irrelevant, a point of view which is increasingly promulgated in our society.
But children ARE affected by family separation. In my experience they are deeply and lastingly affected and how they adapt to the tasks that are forced upon them is key to how they manage their own adult relationships in later life. When I consider the generational experience of single parenthood in this country, which tops that of our European neighbours, I wonder how the reality of what we have done in closing our eyes, ears and mouths about the impact of separation can be so widely ignored.
And then I realise all over again, the silencing power of the women’s rights lobby. That which has the power to shame, ridicule and ruin anyone who speaks against it and I understand all over again why policy makers and practitioners alike hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. A vision of complete dominance, in which the values we hold are controlled by those who perceive adult rights as being above those of children and who, in their goal of eradicating the rights of children to have a relationship with both of their parents, are victorious.
Do children have the right to a relationship with both of their parents? I think so. Do you?