Family 2.0

In general, any topic related to marriage and families bores me to tears but I could not help but be intrigued by this:

“P is an unhappy 10-year-old girl. At school, she cries in the toilets and has to be comforted by her friend. She has “suffered significant emotional harm as a result of the conflicts which have raged around her for at least the last three years,” according to a high court judge.

P’s problem is not that she has two mothers. P knows that her mother RWB and her mother’s civil partner SWB are her family and she is happy with that.

What makes P so miserable is she and her six-year-old sister L also have two fathers. P says she likes seeing ML and his long-term partner AR. But, according to a grownup who was looking after the 10-year-old a few months ago, “she cannot just pretend that ML is her father in order to make him happy”.

Except that he is. ML, 50, is indeed the biological father of the two girls. They were conceived by IVF after the lesbian couple (as they described themselves) had advertised in the Pink Paper in 1999 for a gay man or couple who might want to start a family with them.

The problem according to Mr Justice Hedley is that the four adults failed to decide at that time what their respective roles should be. It was agreed that ML, who is of Polish descent, would be the child’s father and his partner AR, 41, would be the stepfather. But what brought the two couples to court was the effect these terms were intended to have.

The two women maintain it involved little more than the child’s identity. But the two men claim that ML is in the same position as a traditional separated parent and therefore entitled to regular contact.

While thinking the issues through, Hedley developed a new legal concept: principal and secondary parenting. In an anonymised judgment released this week, he deemed the two women to be the girls’ principal parents and the two men to be their secondary parents.”

My first thought was that indeed, we tend to conceive parental roles as cast in stone, gendered, immutable, and oh-so central to society’s stability, rather than socially constructed, subject to social and cultural changes, and reflective of changing power dynamics across social institutions.

My second thought was “what’s the big deal” as in “how is this any different than recomposed families of any kinds?” After all, divorced and remarried parents have to do the same juggling act when it comes to “managing” parenting.

My third thought was that if we stopped considering children as the exclusive property of their parents (and, obviously, the definition of that term is not as straightforward as it seems), such issues would not arise.

My fourth thought was “how nice that the sexual preference of the parents does not enter the discussion as THE issue.” Things, they are changing then.

One thought on “Family 2.0

  1. The phrase that caught my attention in this article says that P suffered significant emotional harm because of the conflicts centered around her. I can imagine the situation very well, as I’ve suffered through something much like it. My parents weren’t happy together and it spread to the rest of the household, and as a result I developed chronic insomnia, depression, and social anxiety by the time I was nine years old.

    “If we stopped considering children as the exclusive property of their parents, such issues would not arise.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this. Even now, my parents argue over my older sibling and me; where we should go for the weekend and who should have us for holidays. My situation isn’t identical to P’s, but there are many parallels. Having multiple sets of parents can have both positive and negative effects, and juggling the kids in between is difficult. My father has a girlfriend and they consider themselves married. When I was younger, my mother could have refused to let me anywhere near her because she was afraid I would see my father’s girlfriend as my mother. This would have meant that I saw my father much less. Thankfully, my mother was willing to actually sit down and speak with me at lengths instead of treating me like a brainless robot with no thoughts or feelings of my own.

    Problems also lie with the children, however. I know from personal experience that speaking up while your parents are silently fuming in the corner is hard. Their anger can intimidate a young child into silence for a long time, without anyone even realizing it. Children become introverted because of this and start to pull away from people at school. I’ll use myself as an example again. When my parents were angry with each other, they would sometimes let it out on either me or my sibling. Instead of speaking up, I let them yell and simply waited for the waters to calm on their own. I could have alerted my teacher to the family troubles, or perhaps a trusted neighbor or a friend’s mother or father. Instead, I allowed myself to become silent and I regret that. I’m not saying it’s the child fault for not speaking out, as it’s a daunting prospect for most young children to speak to an angry parent. As it is, the parents are the ones who need to look out for their children, even when they grow up into teens and then young adults.

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