Readers do not need to plough through very much of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to find one of the writer’s most profound observations on the human condition. It opens the novel: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Yet while the causes and symptoms of misery in marriages and partnerships will vary — from infidelity, unemployment, and poverty to unrealistic expectations and ill-health — the consequences for family members left standing after a family breakdown and going through periods of separation are alarmingly similar, and those most at risk are young children.
For them, a broken home can lead to depression, anxiety, and life-long stress-related maladies.
Most families, of course, are reasonably happy, or at least appear to be. If they’re not, they manage to rub along without ending up in the divorce courts or in toxic separations.
The picture painted today by One Family, the Irish charity for people parenting alone, sharing parenting, and separating, suggests that the number of families in trouble is growing or, if it isn’t, more of those that are collapsing are overcoming taboos and asking for help.
One Family (whose first president was the then-Senator Mary Robinson) reports that requests for its services rose by 82% last year, with a significant increase being from families in the process of separation.
Through its Tusla-funded Separating Well for Children programme, the charity does the best it can with the resources available, sometimes having to fill the holes in services that exist for vulnerable separated parents and their children.
This valuable work involves defusing conflict in families using mediation, parenting support as well as creative therapies for children, the goal being to get parents to put aside their own grievances and focus on the welfare of their children.
The only alternative in some cases will be a private family law service, which means, as the charity eloquently warns, the first responder in these emergencies will be a solicitor who will turn up carrying an invoice — the last thing most lone parents will want to see, since in many cases money — or lack of it — was the cause of the break-up.
The 2017 Survey on Income and Living Conditions showed that that one-parent family households in Ireland experience the most deprivation in Ireland.
Children living in one-parent families had the highest consistent poverty rate at 20%, compared with 3.9% for two-parent households. Lone-parent families have the lowest disposable income of all households with children in the State, while 60% of homeless families living in emergency accommodation are one-parent families.
The challenges highlighted in the charity’s annual report exist in every part of the country. According to the 2016 census, one in four families with children in Ireland is a one-parent household.
There were 218,817 (25.4%) family units with children (of any age) headed by a lone parent, up by more than 3,500 since 2011.
The total number of divorced people in Ireland increased from 87,770 in 2011 to 103,895 in 2016. It’s believed that Cork City has more than 6,750 lone parent households — some 87% of them mothers — while across the county they account for 20.8% of all households with children.
The State, clearly, cannot be expected to pick up all of the bills arising from fractured families when they finally collapse. But it must find the resources needed to protect as much as possible children, the innocent casualties of family warfare. If it doesn’t, the result in the years to come will be yet more broken families and with them, a broken society.