Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: In divorce, children's rights trump those of parents

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: In divorce, children's rights trump those of parents


If their mums and dads can't be together, children want as normal a life as possible in one home, not to be divvied up day by day

Almost everyone is furious with the new Family Justice Review led by David Norgrove, previously an economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Fathers who campaigned for the legal right to shared parenting did not get what they wanted. The best-selling author and father Louis de Bernières said the recommendations filled him with "horror and despair". Mums who are left to carry the entire parenting burden and second wives are also fuming.

Grandparents – also denied legal access in the review – are apoplectic and may form their own protest encampment, if there is any spare land left for dissenters in our capital. One wrote to me: "I will throw stones, chain myself to railings, get myself arrested and go on a hunger strike. Those are my grandchildren. She will not take them away, the woman who destroyed our family and my son".

There are splits within the Cabinet too. The Prime Minister says the report does not reflect the pro-family values of his Coalition. The state treads on broken glass when it tries to find ways to support disintegrating households. Just like so many marriages, Norgrove started so well, with so much goodwill and hope.

There is no easy way to part and no clean parting of ways, not for a great many of us. I am and have been, I hope, a good wife, but am totally rubbish at divorce. So that he knew what he was getting into, I warned my second husband, a lovely, judicious Englishman, that there would be an unending emotional tempest if we ever broke up.

It is the only bit of sympathy I can muster for my ex-husband. More than 20 years on, he must wish I would just shut up, move on. Some spouses can do that with elegance and even affection. It is the modern way. Divorce is as normal as the buying and selling of homes or updating mobile phones and the expectation is that couples will not emote unduly, or kick up a storm, or behave badly. There is an etiquette, you see – we must all be friends, and share parenting for the sake of the children.

That phrase belies as much as it is meant to evoke. For the sake of the children, married men should not take that flirt for a drink, to a hotel room, on that clandestine holiday, or embark on an affair then ask for divorce because they have fallen in love, all too easily done and justified. Every minute they spend with the mistress is time they take away from their children; every tryst is another wound inflicted on their marriages. For the sake of the children women should not behave that way either or choose to end a marriage for flimsy reasons. This view will upset friends, relatives, colleagues, perhaps bosses and neighbours and does, I admit, sound dreadfully judgemental and old-fashioned.

Nobody should have to stay in an oppressive, violent or mutually corrosive relationship to death. Maureen Waller, in her book The English Marriage, describes the suffering trapped wives of all classes who could not legally leave greedy or vicious spouses until the laws were changed. But now divorce has become an exit of convenience for our individualistic and self-indulgent society and that can't be right.

An average of 120,000 divorces are registered in England and Wales each year. Possibly half a million children are pulled between parents (inside their heads, if not in what they say). Couples lie to themselves about the pain they are inflicting on their kids and most can only think of parental "rights", like getting half the house and the joint savings. We are caretakers of our young and have no absolute "rights" to them. I would not have co-parented my son with his father, but I never stopped contact. In the early years though, I kept my child away from the mistress, partly because it was unbearable for me and partly because his young heart would have been even more divided. It wasn't rights, but responsibility that guided these decisions.

Children want their mums and dads to be together and, if that can't happen, most want as normal a life in one home, not to be divvied up hour by hour, day by day. In Australia that kind of sliced parenting, brought in five years ago, has produced more anxious and troubled children than was anticipated.

Listen to Andrea, now 13, someone I interviewed when she was a happy six-year-old with newly divorced parents: "It's all my fault, they fight. If I wasn't there it would be quiet, like. I am cut in half, I have two rooms, two pets, two Christmases, but that cuts me up. Where do I live?" So she cuts, cuts, cuts and her arms are maps with streams of blood. Her parents still think they are doing it all for the sake of their child. Norgrove warns them and millions of others it isn't. Hard though it is, they should heed the message. For the sake of the children.
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