Tuesday 16 July 2019

Modern Family: Changing family fortunes

A radical new law will shortly redefine what constitutes the Irish family. Today - in the first of a five-part series - we look at this institution and how it has fundamentally changed in recent decades.

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Twenty years ago before Irish voters went to the polls in a referendum on divorce, a famous poster warned what the effects on family life might be. The slogan ran: "Hello divorce...Bye bye Daddy."

Ireland voted narrowly in favour of divorce. The doomsayers feared that traditional family life would be broken apart. At the referendum count, the no supporter Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna turned to victorious pro-divorce campaigners and taunted them as "wife-swapping sodomites".

There have been radical changes to family life in the period since, and the new Children and Family Relationships Bill aims to take account of these.

The bill recognises the diversity of individuals looking after children: step-parents, co-habiting partners, gay couples and grandparents. It gives them new legal rights of adoption and guardianship.

The traditionalists may baulk at some of this, but the transformation of family has not always happened in the way we might have expected.

The typical Irish father mentioned in the anti-divorce poster may not be perfect in 2015. He has been through some economic troubles, but he has stuck around. If anything he is more involved in the upbringing of his children.

The flight of the fathers feared by the anti-divorce campaigners has simply not happened. Professor Tony Fahey, an authority on the Irish family at UCD, says Ireland has the lowest divorce rate in Europe at 0.6 per 1,000 people.

That does not mean that the Irish family has not changed dramatically.

Divorce may be low, but a remarkable number of fathers and mothers are not married at the time when they have children. According to figures for the second quarter of 2014, 36pc of Irish children are now born, as the antiquated phrase puts it, "out of wedlock". And many of their parents will stay together and get married.

The average bride and groom now get hitched at the altar or in a registry office almost a decade later than the couples of the mid-1970s.

The bride is typically 33 and the groom gliding into middle age in a rented tuxedo at 35.

But that does not mean that they have not already embarked on forming a family, sometimes through trial and error.

Professor Fahey says: "Irish couples now do things in a different sequence.

"First of all, they have extended their education, and women want to develop their careers. So things happen later."

The couples in the 1970s probably did not live together before they married, and many of them had not even slept together.

Now the chaste pre-marital couple is considered an oddity. A recent survey by the marriage counselling agency Accord found that almost two-thirds of respondents (64 pc) believe couples should live together before they marry.

Professor Fahey says: "Marriage is no longer the important transition that it once was. Now it is common for couples to live together first, then have children and then get married. Getting a house is also a stage of the process."

Finding the right partner is also a more protracted business, according Prof Fahey.

"The person who someone eventually settles with may not be the first partner they have lived with."

It may go against traditional church teaching, but it could be that this cautious approach - the co-habiting "trial marriage" - may contribute to our low divorce rate, and a decline in break-ups overall in western countries.

Prof Fahey says: "Modern Irish couples are not rushing into marriage, and they are not rushing out of it either."

The setting up of the modern Irish family may be protracted and drawn out, but according to Prof Fahey, once they have found their match, Irish mothers often give birth to their children in a relatively short period between their late 20s and mid 30s.

"Once they have decided to have children, it is often carefully planned, " says Prof Fahey.

In the 1950s, the Irish mother was so fertile that the writer Flann O'Brien was moved to remark: "The typical West of Ireland family consists of a father, a mother, 12 children and a resident Dutch anthropologist."

Now the typical Irish mother has two children, one fewer than in the early 1980s.

Of course the modern household is less frequently the nuclear unit consisting of husband, wife and kids.

According to the latest figures available, over 350,000 children live with a lone parent. In 13.5pc of cases, it is the father who looks after the children.

There is also a growth in shared parenting, where a child lives one part of the week with a mother, and another part with the father.

Stepmothers and stepfathers may be portrayed as wicked figures in fairytales, but in many cases they play a crucial role in parenting.

And when the biological parents cannot cope, or have demanding careers to attend to, often it is the grandparents who step in to look after the children. Or it could be aunts or uncles.

Geoffrey Shannon has looked carefully at the changing Irish family as a family lawyer and the State's special rapporteur on child protection.

"The diversity of families brings risks and opportunity," he tells Weekend Review. "We probably pay disproportionate attention to the shape of the family, but all the research shows that it is not as important as the nature of the relationships within it and the extent to which it remains stable."

So, little Johnny can thrive so long as he is well looked after, whether it is by gay parents, single mothers or fathers, step-parents, or in the traditional nuclear family.

Geoffrey Shannon quotes a stark statistic to show how our attitudes have changed in the past five decades.

In 1967, 97pc of children born to unmarried mothers were given up for adoption. Now the figure is 1pc.

Right up to the 1970s, unmarried mothers were often treated as social lepers.

Karen Kiernan of the one-parent group One Family (formerly known as Cherish) says: "It was very hard for mothers at that time to keep their children. They could be sacked from their jobs, and evicted from their homes for being unmarried mothers"

The structure of the Irish family may have changed dramatically, but until now the law has not kept pace with the transformation.

That is why Geoffrey Shannon believes that the Children and Family Relationships Bill is the most important piece of legislation since the foundation of the state. It affects the welfare of hundreds of thousands of children.

In modern Ireland, it may be a step-parent, a grandmother, or a foster parent who puts a child to bed and ensures that they get up for school and has a packed lunch.

"There are a lot of people acting in loco parentis for a child, but they don't have a legal relationship with the child," says Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance

"Now with this new law, anyone who is carrying out the day-to-day care of a child will be able to apply to the courts to be recognised as a guardian.

"This will make a huge difference, because as it stands they may not be able to make decisions for the child.

"And when a relationship breaks down, they may have no right of access even though they have looked after the child for 10 years."

Traditionalists might have feared that a more liberal sexually permissive society might have led to a surge in teenage births.

Many more children may be born outside marriage in 2015, but there has also been a sharp decline in the number of teenage births.

The number of babies born to teenage mothers has halved over the past 12 years. According to the HSE, several studies have shown that the majority of Irish teenagers are 17 or older the first time they have sex.

"The decline in teenage births is probably down to an improved system of contraception, and the morning after pill may also be a factor," says Professor Tony Fahey.

Contrary to the fears of traditionalists, the number of mothers going to Britain for abortions has also been declining, having peaked in 2002.

The shape of the Irish family may have changed dramatically, but until now, politicians have been slow to keep up. Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance believes children can continue to thrive in these new structures, so long as their interests are put first as we adapt to the changes.

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