November 8, 2013

Crocodile brain

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 8:03 am

I am an optimist 99% of the time. I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings, and my version of god is the very best that a human person can be.  Today I’m struggling.  The police, the media, and the young men involved in the roast busters debacle make it difficult to sustain the belief that humans are good.  It is immensely discouraging that Radio Live, for example, and other commentators, seem truly to wonder what the fuss is about. The fuss is about the fact that children, pubescent young girls, are being abused in horrendous, subtle and not so subtle ways. And there are people, apparently mature people, who simply fail to understand that.  Julian Barnes talks about the crocodile brain, that fundamental primitive part of our brain that continues to exist and from time to time to regain dominance over compassionate, rational, civilised behaviour. This is the most dismal and destructive aspect of human nature. I have no way of understanding why those boys do what they do, what has led them to believe that their actions are okay, or – in particular – why there are those who defend them or at least fail to comprehend the horror of their behaviour.

November 7, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 9:34 am

The First Child

Someone has to do it – to be the first born in the family.  The experimental model, the object upon which one’s hapless parents practice their imperative but fledgling skills of raising children.  They have no manual, and any models they had are deemed obsolete, so they start with a pile of books, profound ignorance, a mistrust of advice from elders, and – if we are lucky – a pool of good intentions.


So we first-borns suffer and exalt in turns.  The universal problems are faced – inability to dislodge bubbles of gas from tiny distended tummy, profound discomfort at wet nappies, no idea of when to sleep and for how long.  The coup de grace for parents hits early – sleep deprivation. So they sit for hours, glassy eyed and wobbly, rubbing somewhere in the region of our backs trying to make us burp; they sit fixated on three books at a time trying to determine which piece of advice about whether or not to leave us crying is right; they dither at the dilemma of whether to wake us and change our pants or to leave us lying in baby pee for a few more hours.  Above all they tremble – with fear, with exhaustion, with uncertainty.


Fortunately most of us are robust and time passes. Our tummies grow big enough to expel their own gas, we learn to sleep more at night than in the daytime, and best of all they learn that the police will not come knocking if they leave us unchanged while we sleep.


Their experimentation on us extends far beyond infancy.  When should we be potty trained? We are not walking/talking/sleeping at quite the same rate as the children of their peers in the antenatal group – are we retarded, just a little bit? When should we start preschool? Too early and our attachments will suffer, and too late and we will be educationally disadvantaged. 


Just as we are getting them sorted out on these matters of state, catastrophe strikes.  Another baby comes into our lives.  We, who have been the means by which they learn their parenting skills, have to share their attention. No longer is everything we do another miracle, we are no longer on a pedestal.  Neither they, nor the baby, give us credit for braving the frontiers of parenting.

November 6, 2013

An interim post

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 9:23 am

No time to write something thoughtful or wistful, so a small stream of consciousness from  the end of last summer:

Imagine this. Rain, buckets and pails of it, music and light and love and relief in its coming after 10 weeks of dry. How does the earth stay alive without it? It shrivels and cracks, hibernates and pulls husks of shutters over its tawny shoulders. Small cold blooded creatures scurry in its interstices, warm blooded animals conserve what moisture their bodies can retain by drying their coats to rough pelts. Plants curl and shrivel and lower their metabolism to standby.


And then the rain comes. Big tentative drops, hitting stones and hissing into steam, bouncing off the dust with no trace. The smell is potent, sexy, tangy reminders of hot roads and childhood.


The drops keep coming. Less shy, more certain, they multiply until you can feel their drumming. That wondrous, evocative, timeless sound of rain on the roof, rain on the windows, rain on the car, rain against the wall. This is real rain, the sort you can hear and smell and feel and imbibe. The dust that has stayed for ever in your mouth and nose and throat starts to solidify so you can swallow it, spit it out, cleanse your body and soul of summers grit.

November 5, 2013

Loss and ambiguous loss

Filed under: parents,resilience — survivingfamilies @ 8:03 am

The loss of a baby or a child is widely considered to be one of the most harrowing experiences parents can endure.  We are supposed to die before our children do.

There is no rational debate to be had about which is the worst kind of loss.  A baby or a teenager? A sudden death or a drawn-out illness?   Such comparisons are at best insidious. At worst they are cruel.  The loss of the potential inherent in the life of a tiny baby cannot and should not be compared with the loss of a teenager whose promise has begun to emerge.

It is only fairly recently that the loss of a baby through miscarriage has been acknowledged as an event that elicits grief as deep and genuine as that when a child dies by other means. Hopes are dashed, and potential is not even glimpsed.

When a child (or anyone) dies, there is no going back. There is no alternative to living with the fact that she or he no longer exists.  It is common, though, for parents to imagine turning back the clock to re-live the moments or hours, days or weeks before their child died, to set another trajectory that does not end in death.

As well as the death of a precious child, there is another kind of loss. It is called ambiguous loss, and it occurs when a loved one is missing but not dead – or at least not known to be dead.  A child can experience the ambiguous loss of a parent who has disappeared after separating from the other parent.  Parents of children who are abducted or otherwise go missing also suffer ambiguous loss until the fate of their child is known.

Parents whose children are put up for adoption can suffer ambiguous loss.  Grandparents who never see the grandchild who is adopted, parents whose adult child donates sperm or acts as a surrogate – these are all examples of ambiguous loss.  The beloved is gone or unavailable, but is not dead.  The ongoing existence, or the possibility of finding the person, leads to hope – the tiniest grains in the corners of the heart – that can block the process of acceptance and grieving.

But what if you have never had your child, the essence of your child, the soul of your child, despite having always the living body?

This can be the situation for parents whose babies are born with severe handicaps.  It is also the lot of parents whose toddlers develop autism.  I am reading Andrew Solomon’s tome called ‘Far from the Tree’. It is a great book in many many ways, too many to discuss in today’s blog.  His account of families with autistic children is compassionate and even-handed, as it is of children with other differences. It is also vivid.  The aspect that is tearing at my heart most painfully today is the experience of some parents whose children, whom they love as all parents love those they have conceived and borne, are not aware of them and cannot receive their affection. And they certainly don’t offer any love back.

Love is an inadequate word for the pain and passion these heroic parents experience as they explore all avenues possible and impossible, that might open their children to them and to themselves.  Many autistic children never talk and seemingly do not distinguish their parents from inanimate objects.

One, described by Andrew Solomon in his book, has spoken just four times in her life. Each time she did so, she spoke a complete sentence that was appropriate for the context in which it was said.  To me that seems an exquisitely painful example of ambiguous loss. They know that somewhere inside their daughter is a thinking, feeling, cognitively competent person. But they cannot find a way to release her to herself, or to them.

The majority of parents who live with children who struggle in the ordinary world, suffer – although this is often accompanied by great joy and a sense of accomplishment.  The baffling diversity of autism means that no parents have exactly the same experiences.  They all, though, face supremely testing behaviours on the part of their children. The history of mother blaming (‘refrigerator mothers’) bestows lingering ribbons of guilt and misunderstanding on the part of professionals.  These, and the lack of informed support, combine to impose the cruellest of penalties on parents whose babies start life smiling, and then move inexorably into distressed and distressing worlds of their own.

November 4, 2013

Babies don’t change

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 5:33 am


Each generation says it – I’m so glad I’m not having to bring up children in this society/climate/time etc.  We look at the generation after ours and wonder at the challenges they face as they raise their babies. Drugs, violence, bad influences at school, danger, all these things look a lot more terrifying as we look down the line.


I feel particularly sorry for young mothers today.  Information is flooding them, and much of it is contradictory. The whole business of conceiving, carrying, and bearing their babies is fraught with warning and risk and danger.  Every possible test is done to ensure their babies are growing  properly and normally. The reward for that is some kind of certainty that they are avoiding the right foods, using the correct sleeping position, and that their babies is normal. The downside is anxiety – too much knowledge and awareness of risks that are usually miniscule. 


So the advice changes with generations.  My babies were born in the quasi hippy days of feeding on demand, never letting babies cry, not swaddling them, avoiding at all cost thwarting their natural rhythms and desires.  As a result they had no routines, they spent inordinate amounts of time on the breast, and flailed around at night with arms like windmills.  Today babies are urged into routines – not the rigid 4 hourly feeds our mothers adhered to, but gentle nudging to regular sleeping and eating patterns.  They are swaddled, and they seem to appreciate the security of being wrapped firmly. It seems to work, so long as sleep deprived and anxious young women find a way that feels right to them.


Overall, sensible mothers seem to be getting it right although there are a few whacky suggestions out there.  But babies are babies; evolution doesn’t work particularly fast, so the babies my mother had, that I had, and that our daughters are bearing, come with much the same tendencies and behaviour as they always have.  Hand it to the babies, I say – they seem to survive and thrive no matter what we do to them.  The only imperatives that seem important are to love them to bits, and to give them a few boundaries.

November 2, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 10:00 pm

I have an ideal, a paradigm for grandmothering.  I envision myself as a calm, wise and loving figure who is there as a not-mother, as neither a mother alternative nor mother competitor. I want to be grounded and in a state of grace toward my grandchildren, a resource, unconditional and always available to the generation being spawned by my children.

I have, though, no idea how to be this paragon. The old scripts might be irrelevant but they provide a starting point. My scripts though are largely absent.  The one grandmother alive in my childhood was a weak, insipid woman who played no real or meaningful part in my life. She was not a source of comfort, nor of inspiration or strength, nor even a model of personhood against whom I could rail.

My paternal grandmother, Emily Jane, is a photo.  Her face is level, symmetrical, her eyes steady and her jawline strong.  And so she had to be – strong.  She had five children, just one of whom was a daughter.  Her husband, beside her in the photo, has an oval, bearded, and beside hers a weak face – smaller than hers. He died young, and she raised this considerable family in the well of widowhood.  I wish I’d known her.   She just might have been strong and wise, loving and inspirational. She might, too, have been stern and forthright and cool. At least, looking at her photo, she would have been a presence.

Of these models, both real and imagined, none is right any more. Yet these eyes of our hearts, these babies of our babies, deserve the absolute best we can be for them. Their presence, and the frightening world we are leaving for them, demands that we grandmother as well as we can.


November 1, 2013

First NaBloWriMo blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 9:30 pm

This is an almost late first blog for NaBloWriMo, November 2013.  What a good idea – so much more likely to happen than the novel version, especially for one who struggles to find any imagination.

This blog is about families, obviously. So far, so dispassionate. Today, as I write, my foot is rocking my blue-eyed 3 month old granddaughter. Her mother’s eyes are green and so are mine but her father has glorious cerulian eyes that she has inherited.  She is, of course, perfect.  There are so many cliches around grandmothering and all of them are true, I find.  There’s the DNA thread,  there is the unwordable tug of attachment to this tiny creature, there is the releasing distance of a generation which means that crying does not elicit panic, but rather compassion and the ability to stay calm.  So, expect a few grandmothering rambles in November!

October 9, 2013

Commitment: a sweet old fashioned notion?

Filed under: Uncategorized — survivingfamilies @ 3:33 am
Tags: ,


Why Bother with Commitment?

Commitment can seem like a sweet old-fashioned, and largely irrelevant word in our fast world of relationship change and electronic intimacy.  I suggest though that it is becoming one of the most vital concepts we can imagine in these uncertain and unsettling times and that it is worth revisiting.


Consider some of these things.  Marriage is out of fashion – at least, the sort of marriage our parents and grandparents invested in.  Back then, they married because the pressures to marry were almost unassailable. The church, families, communities, all leaned on couples to marry if they wanted to live in the same house, have sex, and make babies.  In some parts of the United States in the 19th century, it was illegal to live alone.


Traditional marriages are based on duty, on traditional gender roles where men are in charge and women work part time at most.  There is usually affection but these marriages are not based on passion (although they may include some).  They are disappearing in western communities, although they are still to be found in some instances.


Today and in all western countries, the rates of marriage have fallen dramatically. And for those that do marry, the western traditional marriage is largely replaced by the companionate marriage.   Companionate marriages are based on love and affection, and couples – as the name suggests – put considerable store on friendship as well as passion.  Women in companionate marriages are often well educated, but nonetheless cede the role of ‘senior partner’ to their husbands.  These kinds of marriage became common in the mid 20th century, and at first they were in a context where sex before marriage, and children born outside marriage, were not condoned – although both  happened. This was they time when young women became pregnant and either married in haste, or had their babies discreetly in the country and put them up for adoption.  Neither alternative led to lasting happiness.


We seem now to be in the era of individualised marriage, in which each partner aspires to self-development and flexibility in the relationship.  Moreover, many of us do not marry.  We cohabit, we have babies, and we eschew the trappings of church and tradition. ‘It’s just a piece of paper’ and our relationships are strong in themselves without external authorisation.


Except, of course, they are not. Married or cohabiting, the rates of breakdown for relationships and families are at epic proportions.  And marriage does not ensure stability. In the United States, a child with married parents has a greater chance of having his parents separate than a child in Sweden whose parents are not married. And at least half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce.  Something is wrong somewhere.


What is the problem with marriage? Many of us are avoiding marriage because of the lingering whiff of church and state. Furthermore, marriage, according to Andrew Cherlin who wrote “The Marriage go-Round” is a ‘marker of prestige, not conformity.’ He says this because in the US, it is the white, wealthy and well educated who are marrying. Marriage is becoming a status marker.  If you can afford it, that’s fine. And if you are a relatively poor Black woman, say, you will not marry your man until and unless he proves himself as a father and provider.  Marriage is a choice, not a requirement. 


Another reason for the decline in marriage is that it no longer confers legal advantages beyond those of cohabitation.  In many countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden, cohabitation and marriage are virtually indistinguishable in legal terms.  Marriage, then, is primarily for personal fulfilment, intimacy, and to show the world that you have achieved the state where both partners are having their needs for self-fulfilment met. The former functions of marriage to sanction sex and childbirth are no longer there.


All of this is in the context of radically changing social attitudes.  In 2010 nearly 40% of Americans polled by the Pew Research Centre agreed that marriage is becoming obsolete.  Only 43% objected to cohabitation, and to unmarried and same-sex couples raising children.  In Europe, attitudes are even more liberal.  In the same year (2010) fewer than 20% and as low as 10% disapproved of childbirth outside marriage.  More on these surveys in a minute.



We are not, though, avoiding partnership. As many people form partnerships via cohabitation as used to do so via marriage.  This means of course that the divorce rate has gone down – if you don’t marry, then you don’t divorce. You do, though, separate with the attendant distress to both children and adults. 


Back to commitment.  Traditional and companionate marriages and, we might argue, even those individualistic marriages that take place today, all involve public commitment to each other by the partners.  Does this mean that couples who do not marry, but live together and have children, are not committed to each other?  To put it another way, does a public commitment underwrite the stability (if not the quality) of a relationship?


One answer to this is yes, at least in the United States and some other western countries.  Cohabitation is more unstable than marriage if we look at it at a population level. You and I know many cohabiting couples who have been together for decades and will never separate; nonetheless, the statistics tell us that cohabiting brings with it a greater risk of splitting. This may be partly an effect of ‘selection’ – people who have characteristics that make it harder for them to stay with a relationship are more likely not to marry – as are those who can’t afford to marry, and they may be a different group. 


The United States is spending literally billions of dollars encouraging unmarried couples – particularly parents – to marry, in the belief that this will confer stability onto their families.  Results to date are discouraging. It has been found, for instance, that poor ‘fragile’ (as in unmarried) families hold conservative views of family life, and factors such as poverty and ill health both physical and mental predict the breakdown of their relationships, not the fact that they are not married.


Things are changing in regard to premarital cohabitation – living together before marriage.  The vast majority of us now live together before we tie the knot, and until recently researchers were grim about this, reporting that premarital cohabitation was linked to unstable marriages and the risk of divorce.  This is no longer the case, if it ever was.  Furthermore, it is now being found that both marriage and cohabitation confer advantages over living by oneself – higher levels of health, happiness and self esteem, and lower levels of depression. 


I want to argue, though, that commitment is the big factor here.  Couples can ‘decide or slide’ into long-term relationships and parenthood.  Young people live together in flats and in couples, often initially because of economies of scale. It costs less to have two to pay the rent and the food bills.  The choice of a flatmate is seldom based on the same principles as we might use to choose a lifetime partner, yet it is relatively common for flatmates to become sexual partners and then – oops – parents. They slide into becoming a family.  Deciding is harder but very important.  A sharp edged look at compatibility as well as passion is to be recommended.



The commitment trio

Commitment can be seen as having three components. The first is typical of individualistic partnerships, the sort that Giddens describes as pure relationship  – ‘that which is entered for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it’.  It sounds selfish, and it is. The focus is on the individual and the satisfaction that person has with the partner. Giddens’ implication is that if and when that satisfaction goes, couples part.  And we are all a little like this. We want our partner to be our best friend, our confidante, our always-exciting lover, our supporter and cheer leader, and when – inevitably – he or she fails in all these requirements, we are tempted to look for someone who can fulfil us. 


Andrew Cherlin blames the Puritans for the rapid marriage turnover in the United States.  He suggests that the Puritan church encouraged a focus on the exclusive relationship a person has with God, and that self-fulfilment is a right. It follows from this that if your partner does not fulfil you in all the ways you need, then you should try to find someone that does. Hence, some say, the high rates of divorce in the western world. 


Another aspect of commitment is constraint commitment. This serves to keep you in your relationship by focusing on the barriers to leaving.  In the past constraints included the approbation of the church and community and family members; today they are less powerful than the fear of loss of economic resources and the disapproval of friends.   Constraint commitment finds its parallels with traditional marriage in which few demands are made of one’s partner.  The husband is content if his wife raises the children and is available for sex when he wants it; the wife is happy if her husband provides for the family and doesn’t abuse her.  Affection can and does, of course, often feature in such marriages.


The third aspect of commitment is, I think, the most interesting and holds possibly the most potential if we are to work toward stable and happy relationships. This one is called relational commitment. It is also referred to as moral commitment but that word carries too many negative connotations for most people.   The focus of relational commitment is, as the name suggests, the partnership.  And it implies a will to address problems in relationships should they arise. 


Relational commitment in the 21st century is not the same as companionate marriage  in the 20th century; few young women today are happy for their lovers to be the senior partner in the arrangement.  Other aspects of the term ‘companionate’ are relevant, though.  It brings with it connotations of being shoulder to shoulder, of being joined in the enterprise of coupledom and family building, of being equal partners and friends as well as lovers.


How might we foster companionate commitment, given the flight from traditional marriage and the undesirability of individualistic, opportunistic partnership formation?


I believe that the commitment component needs to be public – or, at least, to be made outside of the couple themselves.  The outward expression of commitment to each other enables the celebration and the promise of support from the community of family and friends, holds people to account in a positive way.

Obviously this need not be marriage.  We might think of commitments in relationships as on a continuum in the following way:


Dating                                                                                     LOW

Living Apart Together (LATs)


Civil Union


Covenant marriage                                                               HIGH



Covenant marriage is offered in some states in the United States. It involves pre-marriage preparation provided usually by churches, and involves comparatively limited grounds for divorce.  It is found to be a particularly stable form of marriage, probably because those who choose it are inclined toward lifelong commitment as a result of their religious belief systems.


Living Apart Together is a recognised demographic group, comprising those who consider themselves to be in a relationship but live in different houses or cities or countries. Factors such as work may compel them to live this way; others choose to keep their day-to-day independence by living alone.


Civil Union is available in most countries only to same sex couples, although in a few countries such as New Zealand and France   heterosexual couples can have a civil union.  It has the advantage of not carrying the traditional baggage often seen associated with traditional marriage, and it brings with it the same legal rights as marriage.  It’s likely that couples who are in civil unions see themselves quite as committed as those who are married, so we perhaps should put an equal sign between the two in the continuum.


Interestingly, in France, 95% of   civil unions are between heterosexual couples, and for every three marriages there are two civil unions. People get PaCSed rather than get married.  France is the only country where civil union has been embraced so emphatically by heterosexual couples; we might expect it, though, to become increasingly popular as it eschews the ‘heavy and invasive’ institution of marriage.


Nonetheless, the term ‘civil union’ has a rather grey, concrete building feel about it – far from a romantic phrase.  And same sex couples still agitate for the right to marry – which they are achieving rapidly in many countries now.  Apart from the terminology, we might ask why given the traditional trappings of marriage. It is, it seems, a question of human rights, a matter of choice that all should have about the nature of their commitment.


Furthermore, the nature of formal marriage is changing and perhaps it has changed sufficiently to be acceptable as a ritual that works for most couples. 


The opportunity for other forms of committal are worth thinking about as well.  Maybe we can think of a more delightful moniker than ‘civil union’ that conveys commitment to the partner and to the relationship, that embodies utterly serious intentions to work as hard as possible to get through the brambly parts, that celebrates and incorporates the support crew of family and friends, and brings together both the seriousness and the joy of family formation. 


Let us bring all this together.  I have suggested that marriage is now an exalted status that represents the achievement of commitment rather than the promise of it.  Marriage is the end point of trying out cohabitation and parenting, although it is not a necessary end point.  It remains a solemn though often secular ceremony, that is for several reasons not undertaken by increasing numbers of couples. 


Of course, there are situations where commitment needs to be broken and relationships will fail.  The line between staying in a choking or abusive relationship because you ‘should’ and leaving simply because you are bored is, though, one that is studded with ambiguity. I know a couple who made a commitment that if one or other felt they could not continue, they would try all avenues to restore their relationship for six months. That seems a reasonable way to move toward stability.


Commitment is fundamental.  Drifting into forming a family presages instability unless the adults are clear about the importance of their relationship, and this is facilitated by a declaration of their intention to foster and nurture it.  Making commitments in front of others, in the presence of their community of friends and family who will foster their intentions, is equally vital. It is through support that couples and families are able to get through tough patches and go on to flourish.








October 6, 2011

Is Marriage over?

Filed under: diversity,families — survivingfamilies @ 1:29 am

The question used to be ‘why are you not married?’ Today it may be more appropriate to ask ‘Why are you getting married?’

The rate of marriage (the number of marriages per hundred adults) has declined to its lowest, now, in 40 years.  And New Zealand is not alone in the apparent demise of legal marriage; the same downward sloping line is apparent in the United States, England, and other European countries.

Forty years ago our parents had to get married, if they wanted to have sex and children.  Those who flouted the convention were either careless or brave. The 100 years between 1870 and 1970 was the century when marriage was pretty much mandatory throughout the western world.

Today, nearly half of our children in New Zealand are born outside marriage.  At any one time, though, only about 12% of them live with cohabiting parents (although a quarter live with just one parent). It seems that couples marry after they have had children, rather than before.

Why has marriage gone out of fashion?

First, as more and more couples cohabit in de facto relationships the boundaries between cohabitation and marriage are increasingly blurred.  It has become socially acceptable to live together without taking marriage vows, and the law has adapted to social convention.  It is not necessary now to marry for legal benefits such as property rights, pensions, and inheritance.  For what used to be the main functions of marriage,  legitimising sexual activity and parenthood, a wedding ring is no longer necessary.  In a study carried out by Josie Roberts and myself here in Wellington, we asked cohabiting parents why they had not married and the most common response was that it was irrelevant – they simply had not got around to it. Marriage didn’t matter.

Second, as divorce rates began to soar in the sixties and seventies, couples became not marriage-averse, but divorce-averse. Many had seen their parents’ marriages fail, and separation from a cohabitation is easier, at least legally, than getting a divorce.  Children of divorced parents are more likely to cohabit and when they do marry, they are more likely to divorce themselves. It is called the intergenerational transmission not of disease, but of divorce.  Fortunately, the majority of people whose parents divorce will marry and stay married. It is the risk that is higher.

Third, many argue that in a world that focuses increasingly on self fulfillment, traditional marriage does not foster the development of the individual.  Marriage demands that we focus on the relationship, not just ourselves.

Fourth, marriage has come by many to be regarded as a super-relationship, a status to be attained only if and when the couple has the perfect partnership. We want to get it right so we wait longer to do it – the average age of marriage has climbed steadily in the last 20 years – and many of us don’t do it because we don’t ever feel ready.

And, getting married is an expensive exercise.  Even the most modest nuptials are likely to cost more than many couples can afford.

Civil union is available to heterosexual couples in few countries – France and New Zealand are two of them.  In France, 95% of civil unions are entered by heterosexual couples, and there are nearly as many French civil unions as there are marriages. And in New Zealand in 2010, nearly one third of civil unions were between heterosexual couples.  This suggests that for many people, a ceremony of public commitment is attractive, but not one that carries the weight of the church and the expense of a modern wedding.

Given the fall of marriage from grace, what is happening to commitment? Marriage is a formal, public commitment to one another in front of friends and family, that in the past has constrained couples from separating when problems arise.  Today marriage cannot be counted on to keep us together; children with married parents in the United States are more likely to have their parents separate than children in Sweden whose parents are not married.  And in the study mentioned above we found the same levels of commitment in married and unmarried parents.  Legal status no longer guarantees commitment or happiness.  There remains, though, a crucial role for commitment in partnerships and although it seems that commitment is dwindling in the face of selfish individualism, there is evidence that this is not so.  Researchers in the US and England report healthy levels of commitment to relationships in today’s young couples – it just looks different because more often than not there is no wedding ring.

We are not partnering any less than we did 50 years ago, but we are doing it differently. Marriage, it seems, is becoming less desirable and less attainable.

October 3, 2011

The Gympie train

Filed under: families,parents — survivingfamilies @ 10:31 pm

They boarded the train in Gympie.  Two young women waved and kissed at them from the platform as they settled in the seat in front of us.  The small one – aged about three – put her head between the seats and gave us a beatific smile.  A bunch of her hair was pulled into a rubber band on top of her head. Her mother, whose resemblance to the women on the platform suggested sisterhood, set herself down in her seat with a clump that radiated ill humour.

It started when she told the small one to sit down. She screamed, with volume than no three-year-old lungs should be able to muster.  And that was her mode of communication with her mother for the following three and a half hours.

Her mother’s reaction was to scream back. They fought physically, as two three-year-olds might, but in this case it was not over a toy but over who was in control. The match was even, although it is fair to say that the small one was in the winner’s position the majority of the time.  Sometimes the screaming stopped briefly. In those gaps, the mother texted on her phone.  At another moment the small one was on the floor, banging her head as she went down. ‘Serve you right’ spat her mother.

‘Stop hitting me!’ was her most frequent phrase, as the small one batted at her in fury.

There were, too, rare moments when the small one was quiet and seemingly in good – or at least neutral – humour.  The mother took those as opportunities to text, pick at her nails, or look stony-faced out the window.

The railway staff brought a trolley down the aisle.  The man pushing it said to the small one ‘hey, you shouldn’t be standing on the seat. Sit down.’ Immediate compliance, and on him was bestowed the same angelic smile we received at the start of this beleaguered trip.

Other passengers began muttering, and soon there was a dripfed exodus out of the carriage to another. One woman told her friend that she had timed the screaming and there was one bout that went, without a stop, for an hour.

Let me guess what we were witnessing here.  A young mother, who had not chosen motherhood, her life loaded with the responsibility of raising a daughter whose temperament was not a shy retiring one.  Resentment radiated from the mother, along with helplessness and anger. It is unlikely that this was a unique event for them- the interactions were well rehearsed, refined by both into a performance that had no possibility of a positive ending.

A young mother who is unlikely to have been given any support or information about how to parent any child, and especially a challenging one.  It was chilling to see that the small one had utter control over her screaming. We have all seen and heard children whose level of distress and lack of control over that is evident in the pitch and helplessness of their screams. This child had complete control, and for her it was a competition she could win just by goading her mother to desperation.  Her prize, it seemed, was just that – her mother desperate, and defeated in whatever bizarre game they were playing out.

I suspect that many people in that carriage wondered whether they should have intervened, and wondered how best to do so.  For me, I am ashamed to say that I could not conjure up a way of approaching her that would not have made her feel worse than she did. And she was angry – how might I have talked to her in a way that helped her to diminish her anger, gain control over her monstrous-three-year old?

In the first year of life, one of my children would occasionally scream uncontrollably, and I was quite unable to console her. At home, all I could do was to wait until she calmed herself, and the feelings for me were helplessness and, yes, some anger.  It happened in public one day, on a ferry. All had gone well until the trip back from an island, when she started into what felt like a performance that, from previous experience, I knew had to work itself through to the end.  With ears and eyes of fellow passengers on us, I did all I could think of to staunch her screaming.  And in that public situation, as well as helplessness and anger I felt humiliation and shame. Somehow, parents are supposed to be able to manage their children’s extreme emotions at all times and of course we can’t. Luckily for me, these outbursts stopped happening before she was a year old.

By the end of that rail trip, the mother will have had her failure, her bad mothering, confirmed again – people left the carriage, the daughter continued to win by screaming, and if she had held any hope of being a ‘good’ mother it was smashed again.  Humiliation would have prevailed. Imagine how that affects the next day and the next day as they slog it out together.

And imagine the small one at preschool.  Her experiences are confirming for her that hitting and screaming win the day. She is on a trajectory with ongoing obnoxious behaviour, condemnation, lack of positive social experiences, failure to learn…you know the rest. If nothing changes between her and her mother, then her future seems filled with rage and conflict. That is what works for her now, and small smart brains learn fast.

Could that depressing trajectory be diverted? Possibly. There were moments when the mother could have responded to her child in ways other than ignoring her. She might have brought some distractions for her like books, crayons…pointed to things out the window.  They were fleeting moments, but the small one was not out of control. She was able to stop herself from what seemed to be frantic screaming, at will.  The interaction between the two, however, was so fixed, so patterned, that strong intervention and constant support would be needed. And the mother simply did not have the resources to be the adult in the altercations.

What we saw was a toxic interaction between a reluctant mother with little idea of how to manage her child positively, and a feisty, clever child who had control over their bleak interactions. Children try to control us, but if they succeed it gives them power that sits uneasily and is frightening for them.  They want to know that in the end the adult is in control, will keep them safe, guide them through what is an exciting and scary world.

Another child I knew had middle class parents who knew this. Because he was articulate they talked to him about his behaviour, they negotiated rules, and did all the right things suggested by parenting books.  There were times, though, when he pushed the boundaries and limits, arguing endlessly about decisions.  It was when they learned that he needed, indeed craved, boundaries that things improved.  When, after negotiations and discussions were exhausted, they put the line in the sand and said ‘this is what will happen, no more talking, he relaxed visibly.

It is comparatively easy (although never that easy) to be a good parent when you have resources – a supportive partner, sufficient income not to be stressed financially, friends and family who help when you need it.  My guess is that the woman on the train from Gympie had none of that. Her friends who waved her off were teenagers like her; she is unlikely to have a partner – and if there had been one he might well have been driven away by the relentless will of the child.  She is probably on a benefit.

Here, we might conclude, is another unwanted child, being ‘raised’ by a mother who is herself still a child, heading toward a future of unhappiness and violence. We might guess, too, that this is intergenerational. The mother’s parents lacked  parenting skills, and the small one will be similarly unprepared for parenthood- if nothing changes.

What I am not suggesting is that single women should not have and raise babies. What I am suggesting is that this is a site where families and communities have a pivotal role.  No child is born evil, and (almost) all parents want to raise their children well.  It might have been better if the mother had not become a mother so young; she might have enjoyed the fun of being a teenager, of working toward a skilled job, unencumbered by her daughter. But she did, and no-one who can, it seems is helping her.  What if extended family members were there for her to help her learn good parenting skills? What if someone worked with her and the baby’s father to be parents for the child regardless of whether or not they are together? What if neighbours -especially other mothers, retired folk – offered to help her with her child, even care for her while she went back to work, were surrogate grandparents?  What if there was a school that she could attend with her baby, where she could learn skills for parenting and for life?

What if I had intervened? In reality it would have made little difference – I was leaving the country later that day. But maybe, if I had been able to think of a way somehow to make her feel less worse about her manifestly terribly behaved child, it might have given the smallest gleam of hope. But then again, maybe not.

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