UK – A marriage can end, but a family is for life

Encouraging couples to marry won’t make their children any better off, or society any more stable

Amid the tumult of news that has broken this summer, the appalling mass murder of three children, two women and one man in Jersey almost feels like just another story jostling for attention. In part, this is because a man has been arrested, Damian Rzeszowski.

He is the husband of one of the dead women, Izabella Rzeszowski, and the father of two of the children, Kinga and Kacper. He is the son-in-law of the dead man, Marek Gartski. The other woman was his wife’s best friend, Marta de la Haye, the other child was De la Haye’s daughter, Julia. To use the words police once used, not so long ago, when declining to intervene in violence between a husband and a wife, it is a “domestic”, a family thing. Reports suggest that Izabella had been having an affair.

Such stories, not with quite this degree of violence, not quite this number of victims, emerge with what seems like frequency. Earlier this month, for example, Fiona Donnison was jailed for 32 years after being found guilty of killing her children, Harry and Elise, aged three and two. In summing up, the judge said: “It seems it can only have something to do with your feelings for Paul Donnison, the children’s father and your former partner.”

There is a definite prejudice abroad, one that insists that it is far more often fathers who kill their children, than mothers. It isn’t true. In England and Wales, according to the NSPCC, 55 children, on average, are killed at the hands of another person every year. These figures have been pretty steady since 1997. Of those child killings committed by parents, 53% are by fathers and 47% by mothers. Statistics on motivation are harder to come by. Anecdotally, however, the impression is that such killings often occur when a family has broken up, is breaking up, or when there is a likelihood that it will do so. Of course, when a parent commits such a heinous act, it is easy to assume that the perpetrator was possibly quite hard to live with anyway.

These matters are worth consideration at any time, of course. But right now, as the blame for rioting is laid, in part, at the door of “single-parent families” and “absent fathers”, it does not do to be too romantic about the inoculative sanctity of nuclear family life. At the same time, it is also worth asking whether the single parent, the single mother, might have been romanticised rather too much in some quarters too. The emphasis is very often on the great difficulty of such a position, and the marvellous job that so many single parents do. It’s not that either of these observations is untrue. It’s that the implication of nobility and pluck, the suggestion that this course is to be admired, even venerated, that frustrates and upsets critics who consider “broken families” to be a primary social ill.

The last Labour government, especially in the early stages, came under great pressure from the opposition to declare that two loving parents, under the same roof, was ideal. It was bizarre, looking back, the resistance to such an anodyne observation. Yet, even now, lots of people will feel harshly judged by such an assertion. Nobody likes to feel that their own family arrangements are somehow being written off as second best.

Yet, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that abstract perfect states are useful repositories for consensus, even when in the real world, with its real imperfections, they often have to remain abstract.

Maybe, it is time, at least, to acknowledge one thing: a family, however estranged the parents may be, can only be “broken” by the death of one parent. Have a child by someone, even an anonymous donor, and you have made a family with that person. No separation, no divorce, no abandonment, no reluctance to acknowledge or accept, can alter that unchangeable, biological fact. Having a child with someone is for keeps, even if the relationship is not. That, quite literally, is life.

In the days before the liberals ruined everything, as the right sees it, with their vandalistic storming of traditional institutions, sour, bitter, psychologically abusive and physically dangerous marriages were every bit as inviolate as reasonably happy ones. These traditional structures crumbled so quickly and easily for a reason.

That’s what makes the Conservative obsession with marriage as “the answer” so risible. Statistics showing that children thrive best within marriage are paraded, without acknowledging that it is not marriage itself, but the sort of people who get married and stay married that informs the statistics. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, while it is true that children born outside marriage are generally behind in cognitive development at three, five and seven years old, this is because “cohabiting parents tend to have lower educational qualifications than married parents”. Economic factors loom large, as ever, too. Find a way of urging all those cohabiting people to get married, and the supposed “benefit” would vanish.

Yet, surely there is some importance in emphasising the fact that having a child with someone is a lifetime commitment to them and the child, whatever the form the adult relationship takes? Single mothers are often portrayed as the hapless victims of men who will not do their share or face up to their responsibilities, even, perhaps especially, by feminists. But are women really so passive, such victims? Are women really so unable to assess whether the person whose baby they are having is trustworthy, or even bearable? If so, why?

Likewise, are men the victims that groups such as the defunct and unlamented Fathers 4 Justice paint them as being, when they have babies with women that they cannot get along with, even for the sake of their children? We all make mistakes, but very big mistakes about who one has children with, do seem to happen rather a lot, and with some miserably unhappy consequences.

Marriage is no infallible answer – a marriage can end in unspeakable violence, horror and pain, as was said to have happened in Jersey last Sunday. Yet death, nevertheless, is the only occurrence that can end a family.

Marriage may no longer be considered to be either necessary for having children, or a contract to be entered into until death. On balance, that’s progress. But a family is for life, however “alternative” its structure may be. Perhaps there has to be a more profound and complete understanding and acceptance that there can be no retreat from this fact, because it is utterly immutable.

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