Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Forgotten Children?

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Forgotten Children?

Article excerpt

The first two papers in this edition of JFS provide challenging analyses of the possible nexus between the socially sanctioned structure of heterosexual marriage and social stability, and between heterosexual marriage, parent--child biological bonds and children's welfare. In countries like Australia, discussion of the former is frequently seen as the preserve of the religious right and possibly for that reason receives relatively little attention in the mainstream/academic literature; discussion of the latter has often been sacrificed on the altar of celebration of family diversity--the most common argument (not unknown in previous contributions to JFS) being that the quality of parent--child relationships is more important than either family structure or biological connection.

Both Young and Nathanson, and Somerville invite the reader to take a step back in order to consider (or reconsider) the core socio-legal and bioethical principles that in their view should underpin both the creation of and ongoing support for our children. The papers are longer than we would normally accept for the JFS, but the thinking that informs them is complex. (1) As a reader, you may or may not arrive at agreement with the authors' conclusions. But either way, it is difficult to escape the view that the issues they address are of fundamental importance.

As the third paper for this edition, we have chosen a report by Carmichael and Whittaker on a qualitative analysis of what motivates men and women to form intimate cohabiting heterosexual partnerships (rather than marriage) and thereby temporarily or permanently opt out of marriage as an option. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) figures suggest that in 2005, 74% of first marriages followed cohabitation with the spouse, prompting Carmichael and Whittaker to suggest (this issue: 201-222) that 'living together has become integral to the marriage process' for the majority of Australians. Of particular interest when considered against the backdrop of the two papers that precede it, are those aspects of the data that juxtapose more individualized motives to cohabit with thoughts and desires about having and supporting children. For many, the transition from cohabitation to marriage is linked with a wish to commit themselves to having and raising a child. Of course not all who have children choose to marry and not all who choose to marry do so as a response to wanting a child. Living together in Australia is, as the authors observe, a complex phenomenon.

Wallerstein and Lewis, who provide the final principal paper, report on their longitudinal study of the outcomes for children in families that have separated and reformed. The stories revealed in these data suggest a darker side to the fate of particular children in some of these families. It is a story that is familiar to professionals such as family therapists, who long ago began to classify certain children in families as 'identified patients' who seem to serve the function of carrying many of the anxieties and concerns of other family members, including the adults. A disturbing aspect of the Wallerstein and Lewis study is the suggestion that some children who struggle to adapt to new family arrangements, especially after a parent re-partners, find themselves subjected to a downward spiral of adult negativity. In stark contrast, the authors report examples of hugely differential resources being directed at those children who, presumably through a combination of personality and circumstance, are more able to adapt to the changed circumstances.

In view of the relatively small non-probability sample from which this study is drawn, it is difficult to assess the extent to which this seeming inattention to or even neglect of particular children in post-separation families is a more systemic symptom of a culture of family separation and divorce driven primarily by adult needs. Might this, for example, be linked to a growth of the sort of increasingly individualized and hedonistic culture posited in the first paper by Young and Nathanson? …

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