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We have to stop stigmatising single parents

Single parent Rebecca Harrocks responds to the recent research that shows children fare better in families where parents are married. She says the data is not so clear-cut

Sarah* had been married for six years when she unexpectedly fell pregnant with her first child.  She had often felt scared of her husband Tim* as he would explode into a rage over the smallest thing.  Although to some extent she had learnt to manage his outbursts, usually by staying silent until he ran out of steam, and then apologising to him, it nonetheless still made her feel sick with stress when he blamed her for things she had not done, and shouted her into silence when she tried to respond.

Tim’s temper meant that Sarah had given up confronting him about the frequent rumours of his affairs with other women.  She reasoned that even if Tim had been unfaithful to her, although this thought made her feel physically sick, what they shared together was more significant than some meaningless fling.  No marriage was perfect, no relationship was easy all the time, and people should take their marriage vows seriously – especially Christians.  And so it was that Sarah’s marriage had fallen into an uneasy and increasingly toxic rhythm.

But it was her surprise pregnancy that pushed Sarah over the edge. 

Tim exploded, told her he was not ready to be a father, and instructed her to abort her child or to get out of their rented marital home.  She gave him a week, then a month, then two months, to calm down and see sense...but he did not.  So she made the hardest choice she had ever faced, packed up all her belongings and moved back to her parents’ house while Tim was out at work one day.

I wish that this ‘story’ could be relegated to the realms of soap opera fantasy, but sadly, other than the names that have been changed, it really happened.  It was therefore with dismay that I read the article from Jonathan Williams of CARE about the BBC’s claim that children with married parents fared better.  Although the BBC insisted that the assertions were not intended to be judgemental, what else, exactly, could they be? 

I am not negating the sanctity of marriage nor the desirability of the traditional family unit, bound by marriage.  But as a single mum myself, and having been part of leading the ‘United Parents’ ministry for single parents at Above Bar Church in Southampton for the last four years, I know that life is not so straightforward. 

What do you do if your wife leaves you for a woman, your husband pushes you down the stairs while you’re holding your baby in your arms, your spouse regularly brings STDs from their affairs to your marital bed, or tells you that they want to undergo gender reassignment?

While I accept that maybe some people do not consider marriage with the reverence that the Bible advocates we should, divorce is not a decision that anyone I have encountered has taken lightly, especially when children are involved.  It is an absolute and thoroughly shattering last resort, to be avoided at – almost – any cost. 

As Jonathan Williams rightly noted, the data from the Millennium Cohort Study suggests that a child’s age if their parents split up has significant influence on the extent to which family breakdown affects them, and it is particularly detrimental in terms of emotional problems and conduct issues for children from age seven upwards. 

Another recent study, however, by the University of Sheffield in partnership with Gingerbread, a leading national charity working with single parents, analysed data from 27,800 households with children over a six-year period, and reached some notably different conclusions.

The study found that children who were either currently or had previously been in a single parent household, scored significantly more highly in several wellbeing measures than those who had never been part of a single parent family.  In terms of life satisfaction, how they felt about their families, and peer relationship problems, the data indicated that kids from single parent households were markedly happier than their peers in more traditional family households.

The diversity of research conclusions between the studies suggests that we should avoid any sweeping statements or assumptions.  A quarter of families in the UK are now headed by a single parent, so as awkward and inconvenient as this is, as Christians it is vital that we do not treat single parents or their families as deficient; this only serves to reinforce a sadly common sense of stigma and shame, and to perpetuate the place of single parents on the fringes of church life, struggling to fully integrate.  Failure to embrace inclusion is totally contrary to Jesus’ concerns to bring people back into the fold of a community, to love, welcome and value them. 

*Names have been changed

Rebecca Harrocks is an academic and specialist in single parent ministry

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