To borrow a phrase from Cate Blanchett’s opening monologue to The Lord of the Rings, “the world is changing”. On an almost daily basis, it seems now. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the way we use language. In this day and age, terms and phrases are coming in and out of fashion quicker than ever. The word “bimbo” was once used to describe a ditzy, air-headed woman. Think of Marilyn Monroe’s many iconic characters from the 1950s and 1960s. Now, the term has been reclaimed by TikTok, where many girls are self-proclaiming that they are bimbos.
A similar phenomenon can be seen with the once-slurs “faggot” and “queer”. Both these words are often used now by the LGBTQ community, who feel an empowerment upon claiming the words for themselves. Some in this community still see these words as offensive. A lot of the time, it’s difficult to keep up with, no matter how hard you try.
It can be liberating to reclaim words, and with education comes an understanding that some things are more acceptable to say than others. Many phrases are now labelled as outdated and offensive. Language is being reconsidered from all angles.
Which brings me to an expression that I cannot stand, and that I see far too often – “broken home”. You may have heard it. Often, it is said in a hushed voice, or accompanied by an over-the-shoulder glance. It refers to a household in which the parents are divorced or separated. If ever there was an outdated expression, it’s this one. When reconsidering language in the modern day, why is this damning turn of phrase never touched upon?
The term “broken home” perpetuates a prejudice that Ireland should have long since moved past, and, like that stigma, it needs to be put to bed
In the modern world, we like to think that we are accepting and forward thinking. Many of us are. The family unit is being restructured; same-sex marriage is legal in Ireland, as is adoption for same-sex couples. There are single fathers, single mothers, widows and widowers. Some children are raised by grandparents or family friends.
Many of the children in these homes are happy and healthy. They perform well in school and form tight bonds with others. Their background does not define them, any more than a child from a nuclear home. With so many variations on the family unit, why is one type of family stigmatised with this tired expression? I have heard it three times in the past month alone.
As it stands, many spheres of society still see separated parents as a red flag. I attended a private school for three out of the six years of my secondary education. There, out of more than 100 students in my year, I was one of the few pupils whose parents were separated. The very mention of it was enough to make teachers and classmates alike balk. It was not intentional, and it was rarely offensive, but it was obvious. Eyes would widen. Voices would quieten. The idea of a separated parent house was clearly seen as a sensitive subject.
Be assured that there is a stigma. It may not be as prevalent as it once was – remember, this is the nation that put single mothers into Magdalene laundries and children in mass graves – but it is there. The children of these so-called “broken homes” are seen, at best, as something to be pitied. At worst, they are labelled problem children and bad influences.
Writing for the New York Times, novelist Joyce Maynard reflected on the breakdown of her marriage and the impact it had on her children. Some 32 years after her divorce, she wrote: “Now here we all are – hardly unscathed, but that’s true of just about any family I know.” Her words ring true. We all emerge from our formative years with some scar or another, however unintentional they often are.
Having separated parents is not a “broken home”. But it can feel unsettling. It can be a challenge for many children to overcome. Using the term “broken home” only reinforces to children that their home life is something with which to be uncomfortable. It is an othering expression, especially in spaces where separated parents are not the norm.
Usually, I do not advocate for a stop to language; free speech is, after all, integral to a thinking society, and our experiences shape what we find offensive. Perhaps for some, this expression is acceptable, and I certainly don’t claim to speak on behalf of all children whose parents aren’t together. But I would advocate for reconsidering this phrase. For many, the term is simply habit, but how casually we tell children their home is “broken” is a damnation not only of them, but of our society. It perpetuates a prejudice that Ireland should have long since moved past, and, like that stigma, it needs to be put to bed.
Minnie Mooney is a journalist