A few home truths about family ties


THAT'S MEN:Listening wearily to a woman on the bus complaining about the state of the country reminded me that an excellent, myth-busting report came out from UCD and the Family Support Agency earlier this year on the families of nine year olds in Ireland.

The woman on the top of the 123 bus blamed our current economic woes on the behaviour of young, single mothers. These young mothers, she explained, have lots of children so as to live in comfort on child benefit, in luxury apartments paid for by the State.

Soon, most of the children in the country will have no fathers and society will break down. Meanwhile, the country is broke paying for these women and their children.

If I had happened to have with me a copy of Family Relationships and Family Well-Being: a Study of the Families on Nine Year Olds in Ireland, by Tony Fahey, Patricia Keilthy and Ela Polek, I would have read her some extracts and put her mind at ease.

Here are some myths (and not just about lone parents) that the study punctures:

Myth: We are rapidly reaching the stage in which the two-parents-living-together family will be in a minority. Fact: More than 80 per cent of children live in two-parent families, and in almost all cases the parents have been married since the birth of the child (in this case the nine year old in the study).

Myth: Unmarried, lone parents have lots of children in order to live high on the hog on welfare. Fact: As One Family (formerly Cherish) points out, “the research indicates that never-married lone mothers have far fewer children than average . . .”

Myth: Children experience more conflict and poorer parenting styles in one-parent families. Fact: Parent-child relationships and parenting styles don’t vary greatly between one-parent and two-parent families. Conflict between mothers and children seems to be linked to depression in the mother and also to the child having witnessed conflict between the parents.

Myth: Second marriages or partnerships don’t work because people just make the same mistakes again. Fact: The highest quality relationships between partners are found in what the report wonderfully calls “re-partnered couples”.

Myth: Depression means there is something “wrong” with the parent who is depressed. Fact: Depression is strongly linked to conflict between parents. This, it appears, is also why a link can be found between lone parenthood and depression – to a large extent it is not the fact of being a lone parent but the conflict between the mother and the separate father that is behind maternal depression.

Myth: Depression strikes all equally. Fact: Fathers are less likely to be depressed than mothers. Mothers who are poorly educated have a relatively high risk of depression compared with mothers with postgraduate degrees.

Myth: To end conflict, split up with your partner. Fact: Couples who are together have less conflict than couples who have split up.

For me, one of the lessons of the report is that a good relationship between parents after they have split up – or if they have never been together – is crucial to the wellbeing of children and of themselves, and can protect against depression, whether the couple is together or apart.

For that reason, the work of the Family Mediation Service, which mediates between parents regardless of whether they have been married or are together, is hugely important. The Family Mediation Service was run for some years by the Family Support Agency but is now a service of the Legal Aid Board.

The report also underlines the enormous importance of education in enhancing wellbeing, and suggests to me that families who undervalue education are poisoning their children’s future.

The report can be downloaded, by the woman on the 123 or by yourself, from the UCD website at bit.ly/ucdfamily.

By the way, if you want to know what’s going on with families in Ireland, look up Tony Fahey’s work for a variety of agencies. His well-written, lucid reports are both educational and (often) surprising.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.

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