My daughter does not know she is from what is known as a broken home. If you were to ask her what kind of a home she was from she’d say a happy one. One with lots of music. One where tidying up and cooking is performed through the medium of dance. One with rules but also popcorn and film nights. A small home with a big heart. A place of comfort and warmth and adventures and hot chocolate with mini marshmallows. There are some things in our home that don’t work as they should or need to be treated with care. There’s a couple of cracked tiles and the back door handle is wobbly. But our home is not broken.
I suppose my daughter would say she has two homes and neither she would describe as broken.
But when people say someone is from a broken home are they really talking about bricks and mortar or of the people who came from it? We live in a society deemed as progressive and yet single-parent families are still regarded with sympathy. We betrayed the system so we can’t be whole. Rarely are single-parent families shown in children’s book or television adverts, despite making up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children in the UK. Even in film and television the story usually revolves around the single parent finding love and becoming a ‘complete’ family. A single mother may be seen as a survivor or as strong or as unfortunate. She is certainly not seen as aspirational.
My home with my daughter's father was not really broken when we separated. The truth was it never felt like home anyway and so walking away from it did not leave anything in need of repair. Least of all my baby who found herself then living with a mother who wasn’t both angry and emotionally drained anymore. Her home was created in the dismantlement of a relationship which was never built to last. Home for her is the company of the two people who love her most who have chosen to raise her together, but apart, and are bonded by love for her. Us not being together only means she has two places to find this sanctuary.
I myself do come from a broken home. It wasn’t always. In fact, it was my sanctuary and happy place and its dwellers loved one another for many years. One day, at the age of seventeen, the door slammed, I was told my parent’s marriage was likely to end and the spaghetti bolognese went uneaten. As I stood in the kitchen taking this all in a crack appeared in the wall. It meandered it’s way up to the ceiling where it met the light fitting in the middle and became a creator that split the whole house in two. It’s occupants spent many years after pulling themselves from the wreckage, walking through the grit and dusting off the debris. You might say we were broken but I prefer to see it like a disaster that we survived.
There are also many households who stay together but could be described as broken. Ones with parents who have fallen out of love. Ones where decisions are made by one person and are not shared yet complied with in order to keep the peace. Ones where someone in that family is drowning and all others are looking away, ignoring the signs because it is a crack in their perceived perfect family life. Holding the nuclear family as an ideal can perpetuate such realities.
This is not to say there isn’t strength and security in two-parent families. I myself know many wonderful families with two parents and shared children. There was a time when I’d push a pram past windows of large houses with two cars in the driveway and canvas pictures hanging over family sized dining tables of mum and dad and their two or three beautiful carbon copy kids. I can admit I’d feel envy rising up despite myself. Sadness because that, I thought, was how life was supposed to be. I don't feel that way now. Not for a long time in fact.
To describe a home as broken indicates that both the parents and child will go through life without having something they need. Frankly, it’s insulting. And I’m tired of people assuming single motherhood is the more difficult course. For me, it actually means I only have myself and my child to please. One less person right? Only, that doesn’t occur to many people because I am a woman and we are taught that our happiness comes from pleasing. From being nurturers. That’s why we are handed plastic babies as toddlers and told stories of princes who will rescue us. It’s unsurprising that for a while I felt like I’d somehow failed. I’d had a child in an imperfect relationship which ended and so I’d not fulfilled the dream. Did I worry that my daughter would carry these scars? Yes, for a while I did.
Then, I began to hang our pictures on the wall. A smiling mother and child playing at the beach. Us snuggled together watching the Sound of Music. Creating playlists of our favourite songs for Alexa to wake us with in the mornings, I realised we were a family. A family of two. There were only two of us but there was no less love. No less laughter. No less opportunities.
Politicians speak of family values. Many pride themselves on having had parents with a strong marriage and their own wives or husbands stand beside them and smile for the cameras. This is what they want us to be, they infer. The system does the same. A 25% discount on council tax when you’re a single person although the income of a single person one would assume is 50% of a couple. Tax breaks for married people too. This is an economic structure which rewards people who follow the nuclear family path. Hence leading us to believe it must be better for us. It must be desirable.
Language also reinforces this which is why I believe we must stop using the term ‘broken home’. It assumes too much and it suggests that children from single-parent families are at a disadvantage. As parents we task ourselves with putting our children first. This can mean, because of the way we have been conditioned, that our own happiness comes second. Yet, whatever parenting methods you follow, whatever philosophy you subscribe to, if you are not fulfilled you cannot bring up confident children. Kids who know the world is not perfect and still are armed with the resilience, strength and optimism needed to go out into it, unafraid. If you are going to be successful in doing this you must first begin with yourself and set an example. That is not to show your children how good you are at bending yourself until it hurts, to fit into the boxes we’ve been told we must occupy to keep the world turning. When I stopped feeling shame at having not created the billboard nuclear family. When I stopped searching for it and looked within, I realised I already had everything I needed and so did my daughter. Every day we came home to a poster on our wall from the Wizard of Oz. Yet, it took me a while to realise why I'd decided to hang it in the entrance-way. You see, it took me a while to discover that my daughter and I were always wearing ruby slippers. As Glenda the Good Witch told Dorothy, I didn't need to be helped any longer, I'd always had the power to find home. Only it wasn't out there in the world it was there, in us, with each other. Ever since then I've known our home always was, and still remains, entirely unbroken.