Many years ago an idle moment on google led me to discover a blog, written under a nom de plume, which had clearly been penned by someone who had attended my preparatory school. (Caution, while side-splittingly amusing in part, said blog is disparaging of religion and contains some fruity language).
Having avidly read through pretty much the whole thing in search of familiar names and a nostalgia fix, my mirth turned to horror when it dawned upon me who the author was (she left a trail of inadvertent clues) and I learned about precisely how dysfunctional her family and upbringing had been.
In one post, (which I think has been deleted, it shows up on Google’s cache, but I am not going to link to it out of respect for the author’s wish for anonymity) she details her family history as follows. Apologies for the strong language.
“A potted history of my family. You might want to go and have a wee first, or make a cup of tea, as this may take a while. And you might get to the end of it feeling a little uncomfortable, or maybe sorry for us. Don’t – it’s such a well-worn story now that it holds no emotions, and I’m not out for pity. Cash donations are always welcome, but pity ain’t.
It all started in the late sixties. My mother and my father were still married to each other (in my mother’s head this is still the case, in whatever weird parallel existence gets her through the day. She announced at lunch a couple of months ago that it would have been their forty-fifth wedding anniversary that day. They’ve been divorced for thirty-seven years but hey, who’s counting? If I had stayed at school I’d have been there for twenty eight years this year. It’s that sort of thing…) and my brother was born. He was followed by beloved sister Fifi, and then along came me in the early seventies. I was what’s euphemistically known as a band-aid baby, in that I was supposed to glue my parents’ marriage back together. However, me being me, this didn’t happen. Not even a bit. When I was two, my father ran off with the Avon lady, in a terrible middle-class cliche. Said Avon lady was married with a small daughter at the time. Not to be outdone, my mother hooked up with the Avon lady’s now-ex husband, and the fun began in earnest. I’m not entirely sure how much of this was known to any of the parties at the time; did my mother already have, ahem, knowledge of Avon lady’s husband even as she was getting it on with my father? Did any of them know about the other indiscretions? Was it all a big jolly liberated seventies wife swap? Of all the possibilities I like the last one the least. Uurgh. So, as is the nature of these things, decisions had to be made. Between the two couples there were four children, with another on the way (happily gestating away inside the Avon lady). This is another part of my history that I really don’t understand, particularly as a mother myself. There ensued a process that in my mind took the form of picking teams for netball. My father ended up with my brother, sister Fifi and the impending new addition. My mother gained me and the Avon-lady-ex-husband’s daughter. My brother was seven, Fifi was five, I was two and a bit. My soon-to-be-stepsister was four. So the adults, satisfied with the arrangements, all went off and set up home and got married, and concentrated on raising the kids with an eye to minimising any damage caused by the events of their early years. Well, my father and the Avon lady did anyway.
My mother and stepfather chose to either tell me, or to simply let me believe, that my father and stepmother were my uncle and aunt, and that my brother and sisters were my cousins, with my stepsister being my only “true” sister. We used to get together at Christmas and on a couple of other occasions throughout the year – lord only knows how that worked as far as the grownups went – a lot of polite small talk I expect. In addition to this familial obfuscation, my mother and stepfather set about drinking themselves into a coma at every possible opportunity. As their relationship worsened, so our evening and weekend routines evolved until my stepsister and I were cast in the role of peacemakers, endlessly placating and fruitlessly refereeing drunken rows. To this day I can’t sleep if there’s noise, only because part of me is still listening to make sure an argument doesn’t break out. I first heard the “c” word aged seven, when my stepfather burst into my room in the middle of the night to tell me I couldn’t go and stay with my school friend because I was a spoiled little cunt who thought I was better than him.
We weathered Christmases in which the only salvation was that my stepfather would pass out at four pm, and social gatherings where we were lucky to arrive home alive, such was the frequency of drunk driving. I have a vivid recollection of sitting in the back of the family car with my stepsister, as my mother complained bitterly that the car had broken down. My stepfather was unconcious in the passenger seat, having rounded off the evening at a schoolfriend’s parents’ house by collapsing backwards over a low wall, knocking it down and taking a garden bench with him. It transpired that the car was fine – my mother was simply so drunk that she was pressing the brake instead of the accelerator. Armed with this helpful knowledge, she changed feet and drove us home. This and a thousand other horror stories that I won’t bore anyone with now mean that I’m fairly sure that stepsister and I drew the short straw….
So, here we are. The Surly family tree contains a father who I don’t call Dad, a stepmother who has been more of a mother to me than my natural mother despite never living with me, a stepfather who I haven’t spoken to in nearly twelve years, a mother who I couldn’t even begin to describe, a brother, a sister, a stepsister and a half sister. My stepsister is everyone else’s stepsister as her father was married to our mother, and her mother is married to my father. My half sister is everyone else’s half sister, as she shares a father with me, my brother and sister Fifi, and a mother with my stepsister. My mother and stepmother are sworn enemies owing to my mother’s treatment of my stepsister when we were small. My stepfather has apparently gone a bit churchy in his old age. My mother is mental. My brother and half sister are the only children who haven’t been through some sort of therapy, giving all the parents a better than fifty percent strike rate in officially fucking their kids up.
It’s a wonder I’ve turned out so normal, isn’t it?”
This story has been playing on my mind an awful lot over the past few months as it could potentially do much to undermine my oft-stated narrative that where possible, children ought not to be removed from their biological parents and that young children need their mothers.
I’ve also been wondering what has happened to the blog author who tragically for her avid readership stopped blogging back in 2009. She regularly made the top ten lists of the most popular British blog and while her style may not be to everyone’s taste, since inadvertently discovering her blog, I’ve always fostered a sneaking sense of pride. She was in the year above me and I remember her rebellious humour, sarcasm and curiosity even as a young child. What shocked me upon reading her story, was how, as children, we too had absolutely no idea what was going on behind closed doors in that family, even though my elder sister was best friends with her elder sister until the friendship petered when they went to different secondary schools. My parents were teachers at the secondary school the girls attended and never noted anything amiss with family – the mother by all accounts, was very good at putting on a front.
Anyway in this case, clearly all of the children would have been better off had the divorce not happened at all and the parents had attempted to work together for the good of their children, and arguably, my friend would have fared better remaining with her natural father and stepmother instead of the peculiar arrangement which did take place.
The whole thing is utterly mind-boggling and baffling, particularly as she notes, to anyone who has ever been a mother. How can children be divvied up as though they were chattels or possessions? How could anyone be so cruel? How could a mother use a romantic relationship or entanglement to justify parting with her young children in order for another woman to bring them up as her own? I get bad enough separation anxiety when leaving the children in the car to go and pay for petrol!
Same-sex couples would be completely justified in using stories such as these to point out that sometimes heterosexual parenting can fall extremely short. Being in a male/female relationship doesn’t guarantee that you aren’t going to make a disastrous hash of parenting.
But actually what this sorry tale shows us is that children do actually fare better when they are brought up by both biological parents who have an interest in them. What happened in this situation, as in so many cases of divorce is that the adults selfishly put their own needs first and the children became an afterthought, which is hardly surprising. No doubt they went through all kinds of mental sophistry in the process of self-justification, surely no parent could be so blind or callous to think that the children wouldn’t be affected in some way?
I am reminded of the compelling book Jephthah’s Daughters, edited by Robert Oscar Lopez (noted academic and author of the English Manif blog) in which several children brought up by same-sex parents give their testimony as to what life was really like growing up deliberately removed from one biological parent. They report similar tales of abuse, alienation and anger as adults, when they realise how damaged their childhoods were and their poor resulting mental health.
I am not saying that the above fate will inevitably happen to every single child brought up by same-sex parents, nor am I claiming that every child of divorce will have such a calamitous experience, but that the above account is what happens when adults choose to put their own perceived romantic or relationship desires above and beyond the emotional needs of their children.
Divorce, as I know, is always disastrous for kids and any subsequent action is always about mopping up or attempting to mitigate against the negative consequences. Sometimes situations do require a civil divorce, not least for reasons of safety, but this is still not as ideal as a stable, loving couple in a long-term committed permanent relationship raising their biological offspring together. The caricature of the evil step-parent exists for a reason, the Cinderella effect is an uncomfortable reality. In several countries, stepparents beat very young children to death at per capita rates that are more than 100 times higher than the corresponding rates for genetic parents. My friend’s experience is not that uncommon; step-parents or partners of biological parents are far more likely to be perpetuators of physical or emotional abuse. A potentially embarassing and difficult admission for someone in my position – my husband is a loving and doting stepfather to my eldest daughter. I’ve said before, that from her perspective it would have been preferable had her parents been able to stay together and both of us have had to work very hard to ensure that she has not been forced to unduly suffer as a result of her genetic parents’ folly.
Re-reading what happened to my old friend (whose blog is still out there) I wondered whether or not the ‘families come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes’ narrative would have been trotted out as justification by these archetypal and surreal seventies wife-swappers?
But the purpose of this post is not to use an example of disastrous hetrosexual parenting to attack same-sex couples, if anything it shows how male-female parenting is equally capable of going horribly wrong. Here we have a case of children being instrumentalised, used as commodities, treated as possessions way before the idea of surrogacy, gamete donation and IVF to create same-sex parents was even possible, let alone accepted by the mainstream.
What it does demonstrate is what happens when individuals put their own individual wants and desires above everything else, including child welfare and attempt to obfuscate or deny the good of the traditional family unit or the need of a child for their biological mother and father. As my friend’s situation demonstrates, quick, easy no-fault divorce was the harbinger of doom in terms of bringing about situations where children could be treated as irrelevant or as of secondary importance to the rights of adults to do what they pleased. No sooner had legislation been passed recognising that children had basic human rights and ought not to be exploited in factories, workplaces and up chimneys and should be entitled to an education, then we promptly undermined it by saying it was acceptable for them to be deserted by their mothers or fathers in their pursuit of personal happiness.
This week Cardinal Nichols talked about how the Synod on the Family ought not to be thought of as a battle, because collateral damage is one of the worst and most tragic consequences of hostilities. When it comes to the issue of divorce, children are the collateral damage and tragedies such as the one so bleakly outlined by my friend on her blog, occur. Which is why the 461 priests were right to publicly uphold the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. When permanence ceases to be a fundamental part of marriage or its key purpose of child-rearing is ignored, it is children who are the innocent and unwitting victims, even if the intention is supposedly a good or merciful one.
I do hope my friend is alright. I wonder if she’s deleted various entries after being alerted to various searches on it over the past few weeks? Last I heard she had embarked on her second marriage, as had her step-sister and natural sisters. None of them were speaking to her mother who had split up from step-father almost twenty years hence.
She mentions that her step-father has now become ‘a bit Churchy’ in his old age? What message would it send to her and her family were the Catholic Church to extend a vision of mercy which effectively said that the past actions of these deeply flawed and selfish adults did not matter one iota and the destroyed lives and relationships were irrelevant? All that matters is their current happiness and sense of not feeling ‘excluded’?