Aged sixteen, one of my sons – wise beyond his years – said to me, apropos of nothing, that in his experience the girls he knew whose dads had left their mothers were demonstrably ‘needier’ than the others (ones who still went home to mum and dad). You needed to be on your guard, as a boy on the receiving end, so to speak.
Over the years various waifs and stray friends of my sons came through my doors to be fed and watered – have showers, have somewhere to sleep or a meal or just to sit on the sofa in the kitchen with me – yes me. A bit of home comfort. I heard the saga of one 18-year-old’s selfish parents’ behaviour – not that she, loyal to the end, told it that way. First year at uni, she had no home apart from her hall of residence, which you get kicked out of in the holidays. Dad has run off with his French girlfriend and mum on the rebound has taken off to Thailand with a new boyfriend. Their home had been sold. She was already a bag lady, showering at friends and overnighting on their sofas.
Then there was another boy whose dad had remarried. His mum decided to go back her native South Africa. Dad’s new wife refused to have this 21-year-old university son staying with them at all. He used his initiative and survived by house-sitting or staying a week at a time with friends’ parents (like me) till he got a job – applied for from my kitchen table.
Another (younger) boy told me how he had to share his bedroom in the school holidays with his new step sibs when home from boarding school. His dad had run off with his secretary. Mum had then remarried herself to a man abandoned by his wife and left with his three teenage kids – two of whom, guess what, had the same Christian names as their step sibs to be. How jolly you might think. It wasn’t.
Mum’s house didn’t have enough bedrooms. So my son’s pal and his brother were made to share their bedrooms with their new stepbrothers, and likewise their sister with her new stepsisters.
Some sharing you might think should be no hardship for the spoilt younger generation. But that’s not the case where step families are involved. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand why. Just imagine yourself as a child confronted with that situation.
I was reminded of all this while reading research published in the USA this week. It confirmed how problematic parental breakup is and the impact on children of what are euphemistically called ‘blended families’.
I was not surprised by the findings:
Infants who grow up with step sibs, even if they are living with both their own parents, behave more aggressively. Also that one in six pre-school children in the USA are growing up in these “complex sibling relationships”.
Where the USA leads in matters of family breakdown, the UK follows. Family breakdown has received considerable attention in the UK – not least for its impact on children, most notably in the work of Iain Duncan Smith’s 2007 Social Justice Policy Review published by the Centre for Social Justice.
However, the UK research that still influences policy thinking, sadly, is not this but that conducted by the left-leaning Thomas Coram Research Institute commissioned by the last Labour Government.
This research found that the number of children growing up in step families was growing fast. It also found that “living in a more complex stepfamily, where both parent and step parent have brought children into the ‘new’ family” was associated with more “adjustment problems than in a step family where all the children are related to the mother”.
The disturbing aspect of this research was less the diagnosis than the convoluted conclusions reached from the evidence collected. Anything, but anything, was preferable to suggesting that the breakdown of the parents’ relationship itself was the root of the problem for children, or that the challenge was how to discourage the breakdown trend.
Naturally, the report concluded that “family functions rather than family type” were more relevant to understanding the impacts on children associated with family breakdown.
This type of analysis is the type that has led to all those state ‘early interventions’, mediation policies and other ‘sticking plasters’ where the state takes over the family’s responsibility for children. The fact that demand for child mental health services far outstrips supply is just one indication of how futile these all are.
So the problem of step families and for step sibs gets worse. Government and experts remain myopic as to the solution. A counter cultural revolution in adult freedoms, in their relationships and in their understanding of the responsibility they bear towards the children they conceive – backed up by a radical reform of family taxation – cannot come too soon.