Christmas wish lists have recently been featuring a new request. More children are asking for ‘a daddy’. This is unsurprising. The sheer scale of fatherlessness in our society is historically unprecedented. Only 55 percent of fifteen year olds in the UK are living with both their natural parents.
In the past, children may not have had the glittering array of consumer goods now readily available. But the great majority had a gift which, sadly, you can’t buy and wrap. The gift of a mum and a dad. The knowledge that the two people whose act of love gave them life were going to ‘be there’ for them, probably into adulthood.
And, in most cases, this gift was given to children by society, via the institution of marriage.
Over the past half century we have ‘grown up’ as a society. Individual self-fulfilment is viewed as all important. When duty to others clashes with that – our freedom generally takes precedence. We no longer view marriage as ‘an institution’ involving binding duties and responsibilities to the wider society, or even to our own children.
‘Marriage is all about love and commitment!’ declared David Cameron ad nauseam during the debate over same-sex marriage. Really? Is that all?
Many different relationships are all about love and commitment! But, throughout history, marriage has been unique in forming the basic building block of society. It’s something bigger than the individuals involved. It joins past generations with future generations, and joins together two extended families.
In particular, by means of the institution of marriage, society has given to children the gift of knowing where they came from – not only who their parents are, but also their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Marriage has given children the gift of ongoing care and commitment from the two people whose love brought them into being.
During the twentieth century, as individual adults increasingly demanded absolute rights to freedom and self-fulfilment, it became apparent that those rights sit uncomfortably with the duties and obligations associated with a traditional understanding of marriage.
The answer was to redefine marriage (a process which began long before the passing of the same-sex marriage bill). Academics called this process the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of marriage.
No longer was marriage viewed as a natural institution, the complementary union of a man and a woman to provide children with a secure home, and society with stable families. Rather it was understood primarily as a romantic relationship for the enjoyment and fulfilment of the two individuals involved. The obligations (‘til death us do part’!) which traditionally supported the institution of marriage had to be dismantled if they impinged on our personal fulfilment.
There has been a price tag to all this freedom and self-fulfilment. And, as those rather pitiful Christmas wish-lists testify, those who have paid most dearly have been our children.
Sharon James’s booklet, The Meaning of Marriage How the sexual revolution has changed our understanding of society’s basic building block, (£2.50) is available from the Family Education Trust, www.famyouth.org.uk/