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Divorce can rip families apart, leaving one parent — usually the father — out in the cold. The importance of the family unit suddenly disappears. In its place comes hurt and confusion on all sides. If you’re going through a divorce, one of your biggest questions might be “who is my family now?” Your kids, of course, but what about your ex? Who is the family for your children? What happens to the family that you created together? And for that matter, what even is a family?
As divorce lawyers in London, we see a lot of hurt, pain and confusion coming in and out of our office. So many troubles down the line can be nipped in the bud, simply by a change of mindset. Here, we talk about the concept of family, what it means and how to maintain a feeling of family once you’ve signed your divorce papers and ended your marriage.
What is Family and How is it Embedded in Our Culture?
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of family is “a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.” Note here the use of the word ‘living’, as though without physical cohabitation under the same roof, you’re not a proper family. Yet nowadays, family can mean so much more. Family are people we’re related to by blood, but maybe haven’t seen for years. We also refer to friends and even pets as our family.
In the West, we have become very tunnel-visioned in our concept of a family being the nuclear family. This has been reinforced by the media since the 1950s, when advertising became more common. Despite so many families being left without fathers after WWII, the happy family image of mother, father, two kids and a dog was still perpetrated by the media as the American dream. Despite the growing number of diverse families in the US, such as same-sex couples, single parent families, or grandparents raising their children’s children, the media continues to portray the fallacy of the stereotyped ‘perfect family’.
This concept is radically modern, however. In more traditional cultures, child-rearing is still regarded as a communal effort. The Igbo and Yoruba proverb ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ reflects their concept of family: that the role of being a child’s family falls not just to their parents or blood relatives, but to their entire village or community.
How Does the Nuclear Family Concept Damage Children in Divorce?
Despite single-parent families being far from uncommon, there’s still a social stigma attached to raising a child alone. Single mothers, even though they make up almost a quarter of all parents, still run into a huge amount of social disapproval. Dads, too, run into criticism more often than not, with the social welfare system’s current structure allowing mothers to bargain a father’s time with his child against the money he provides. If a father chooses to contribute a resource other than child support, like school fees, food, or cash — all of which allow him to feel more hands-on with his child — then he risks being labelled as a deadbeat by society, because his contribution isn’t legally tangible.
The result can be a child caught in the middle of two parents who, having been a single unit, are now two lone agents working against each other. This can lead to parental alienation, poor grades at school, an increased chance of drug and alcohol abuse issues and poverty later in life. As a result of our culture’s idealised image of the nuclear family, the connotations of the damage of divorce even embedded deeply in our language; ‘broken home’ implies something missing, destroyed and unfixable.
How Do I Keep My Family After Divorce — and Why Should I?
If you’re staying together for the children, then it’s time to call it and see your divorce lawyer. As London divorce lawyers, working in a city with a high-pressure lifestyle and an equally high divorce rate, we often see the results of people who’ve stayed together too long so as not to ‘break up’ the family. In fact, from your child’s point of view, it’s better to have two happy parents in different homes, than unhappy ones under the same roof.
Divorcing while there’s still a glimmer of pleasantness in your relationship means that it’s easier to keep the feeling of family. Divorcing using mediation, rather than settling in court, can make a huge difference to how equanimous your divorce is. Being able to sit in the same room as each other and hold normal conversations makes a huge difference to how involved you can both be in your children’s lives. Handovers, school plays, parent/teacher meetings will be easier in the present, but it’s also important to think about the future. College decisions and even your child’s wedding will all be easier, less stressful and better for everyone if you make the effort to have an amicable divorce now.
In this way, keeping a sense of family is totally possible. Your child still has two parents, after all. Keeping both in their life should be encouraged as much as possible (excepting any physical or emotional danger from the other parent). Embrace your extended family; now’s a time to really help your child bond with their relatives and ask their help where necessary as you get through this tough time. Time with extended family will also help your child feel surrounded by unconditional love for them — something they may be questioning after their parents’ divorce.
With concerted attempts at an amicable divorce, compromises over child care arrangements and encouragement for the other parent to play their part, you needn’t feel like you’ve ‘broken’ anything, least of all your family unit. Your child or children are the centre of this unit and your family is far from gone. Eventually, it may even be added to as one or both of you remarry. At that point, there will be the strong foundations laid for the good communication which will allow a successful relationship with your child’s new step-parent. Instead of losing the family raising your child, see it as an opportunity to gain a village.
Clayton Miller is a founding member partner of KMJ Solicitors — a highly sought-after divorce solicitors in London. He has over fifteen years of experience as a family law specialist, including divorce and separation, as well as offshore trusts, prenuptial agreements and cohabitation law.