But a ‘father figure’ – however wonderful he might be – is not the same as having a ‘father’ around. My most emotive childhood memories involve the few times a year that I saw my real father. Think what could have been if we’d all been one happy family. It wasn’t to be. As an adult, my biggest issues have concerned my father and how that has in turn affected my own marriage and fatherhood. That’s a story for another day.
Suffice to say that I missed out.
For that first Christmas in 1964 that I spent with just mum and my brother, family breakdown was still something of a rarity. In that year, there were some 25,000 divorces affecting 50,000 children.
According to an analysis I’ve just done of data from the 1961 Census a few years earlier – some 8.8% of children lived with lone parents at the time. Add on a bit for step-families – for which there’s no data – and we’re talking about one in ten children like me facing Christmas with just one parent.
Now fast forward to 2011 – because that’s when the most recent Census was conducted – and family breakdown had become something of an epidemic. In 2011, there were 57,000 divorces affecting 100,000 children in England and Wales. But that’s just the couples who were married. According to research I did a year ago, you can double these numbers for cohabiting parents.
That makes four times as many children under sixteen experiencing family breakdown today compared to when I was a child.
My latest analysis of data from the 2011 Census – today’s Times here and full briefing note here – shows that there are now 4.2 million children not living with both parents. One in three children today won’t spend Christmas with both parents.
Does that shock you? It’s undoubtedly sad. It’s also way too high.
Back in the 1960s, what couples did well was commit. Almost any couple having a baby was married. So if you were going to have a child, you had made a pretty clear commitment to one another beforehand. Of course there were also social taboos that made it hard for parents to leave difficult marriages. That all changed at the end of the 1960s with the divorce law reforms.
Today we have pretty much the reverse situation. What is much better today is the lack of taboos that stop couples leaving difficult relationships. But there are also a great many couples who have children without making a clear commitment to the future. If you doubt that, just look at the concentration of family breakdown in the first three years of parenthood among unmarried couples. Planned parenthood tends to go more with marriage than cohabitation. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that parents cope better with the stress and exhaustion of sleepless nights if they’ve made a prior commitment before having children.
So, one in ten – the level of breakdown back in the 1960s – is probably too few. One in three – the level of breakdown today – is definitely too much.
Four million children is far too much. I have no idea what a reasonable level of family breakdown should look like. But it isn’t what we’ve got today.