Yesterday [6th November] I attended a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sustainable Relationships at the House of Commons. A strong and spirited case was made for much greater attention to relationships within families, particularly in families with children. It was good to see some heavy hitters there, like Graham Allen MP.
Some years ago, we were doing the same thing about the importance of fathers and using the same tactics – referring to the copious evidence. It is the same issue – seeing families as a system, engaging with more than one person and taking into account the dynamics between them.
The success of the fatherhood campaign has been limited. The overwhelming proportion of family services still focus only on the mother’s parenting capacity, with billions of pounds of public expenditure behind it. I think the campaign on engaging with relationships will go the same way – it will founder on the same rock just below the surface.
The rock is the profound and passionate belief in UK about the primacy of the mother-child bond. In work with the family, the mother-child relationship is the focus of everything, the top of the hierarchy of all possible considerations. This view was present in the meeting – Graham Allen referred several times to the single relationship in families between mother and child. Another person commended the idea of support for family relationships but then made the case for mothers (not fathers) to stay at home with their babies for a year, a division of roles that is a deep challenge to many relationships. This world view of families is wrong – it contradicts the evidence about the systemic group nature of human parenting. In the light of this belief, how can relationships within families be anything more than one of many environmental factors competing for attention? What about all the other things that impact on motherhood – fatherhood, housing, money, drugs, mental health, obesity? In the current world view, support for relationships will have to take its place in the long queue, and in the current state of the economy, it will stay in the queue, except for some isolated, rare and brilliant exceptions.
I think the current world view is challengeable, because the alternative is wonderful and liberating. There are enough people for whom the current view is deeply problematic – not just professionals and policy makers, but mothers and fathers struggling to make a go of things and achieve their aspirations. We need a new vision of what really good parenting is –something about teamwork, multiple attachments, mutual support of strong relationships, a “village to raise the child”. If we could capture and promote a vision that connects with enough people, we might be able to shift the rock under the water, and allow approaches that support the family team to become loved and widely practised.
Courtesy of Duncan Fisher