Anger after blame placed on working mothers for family splits

THE growing economic independence of women is linked to the break-up of families, which in turn is damaging children, researchers suggested yesterday.

The majority of mothers with babies under a year old now work, meaning more children are in childcare than being looked after by their parents, according to a report by charity the Children's Society. It said these changes have altered the face of family life in Britain.

But other campaigners said that the findings were too simplistic, stressing that women had the right to work, and in many cases had no choice because they needed to support their families financially.

The report, compiled by more than 35,000 contributors, including 20,000 children, is independent of the Church of England-affiliated Children's Society, but has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

The authors of the report, entitled A Good Childhood, said that, compared with a century ago, two changes stood out, the first being that most women now worked and had careers as well as being mothers.

"In Britain, 70 per cent of mothers of nine- to 12-month-old babies now do some paid work," the report said. "This compares with only 25 per cent 25 years ago – a massive change in our way of life."

The Children's Society said the second change was the rise in family break-ups.

"Women's new economic independence contributes to this rise: it has made women much less dependent on their male partners, as has the advent of the welfare state," the charity said.

"As a result of family break-up, a third of our 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological fathers."

The outlook for those children whose parents do split up is bleak, according to the report.

"From over 90 studies, we know that an average of 50 per cent more children with separated parents have problems than those whose parents have not separated," it said.

"This is true of a wide range of outcomes: academic achievement, self-esteem, popularity with other children, behavioural difficulties, anxiety and depression."

It also said that following a break-up, children and at least one parent – often the mother – found themselves in poverty.

But the report, which is launched today, will also say that the difficulties facing modern children are not caused purely by the family environment.

Figures published by Unicef in 2007 showed that children in Scandinavian countries – where rates of family break-up are similar to the UK – are happier than British children. The report criticises the lack of support in Britain for families and calls for parenting classes, psychological support when relationships come under strain and more help if children develop behavioural problems.

The authors also suggest the development of a civil ceremony for new babies to offer an alternative to a christening service for non-religious parents.

They say that parents and the community would benefit from an opportunity to make public vows about their commitment to supporting the child.

Denise Tyler, editor of the online magazine Mother@Work, which offers support to women who return to the workplace after having a child, said it was too simplistic to suggest that women working was to blame for family break-ups.

"Would these families have broken up anyway? That is a question that is not easy to answer," she said.

Ms Tyler said that women needed to be supported to return to work if that is what they wanted, and not be made to feel guilty for doing so.

Sue Palmer, an educational specialist and author of the book Toxic Childhood, agreed with the authors of the report that the economic independence of women was affecting family life. But she said that the solution was not to force women to stay at home with their children as they had in the past.

"The past 30 years has seen a massive change in the workplace, with more women going to work but working on men's terms.

"When this happened we lost the important role that they played in bringing up the children and in the community.

"But we now need to look for 21st-century solutions rather than taking away women's rights to work," she said.

Ms Palmer said that more emphasis needed to be put on good-quality childcare – whether that was provided by the mother, father or another carer.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families at Westminster said it welcomed the debate on childhood issues.

"We know there are still risks and challenges ahead for children and parents and that there is more for us all to do," he said.

"But as the report points out, in many ways our children have never lived so well – children are more educated, less sick, and more tolerant, and the government is working hard to invest, help and support children and their families to make Britain the best place in the world to grow up."

BACKGROUND

THE report states:

Most women now work outside the home and have careers as well as being mothers.

More mothers of babies under 12 months old now work than do not and their children are being looked after in childcare rather than by their parents.

It is women's new economic independence which contributes to the rise of family break-ups.

This is because it has made women much less dependent on their male partners.

The advent of the welfare state has also been cited as a contributing factor.

As a result of family break-up a third of 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological father.

The outlook for children whose parents do split up is bleak.

An average of 50 per cent more children with separated parents have problems than those whose parents have not separated.

Family break-ups have been found to affect children's academic achievement, self-esteem and popularity with other children as well as leading to behavioural difficulties, anxiety and depression.

In addition, following a break-up, children and at least one parent – often the mother – find themselves in poverty.

Proposal to limit family size seen as 'a breach of human rights'

SUSAN Christie is very happy with the size of her family. With husband Fraser Mackenzie, she has three children – Conor, 14, Tigue, 11, and Marley, nine.

But according to leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, couples who have large families are "irresponsible" and to help save the planet we should limit ourselves to just two children.

It is an idea that has angered many parents, who fear that such a move breaches human rights and puts the UK on a par with communist China, where couples are limited to just one child each.

Ms Christie, 45, of Cromarty, on the Black Isle, said society already seemed to have its own idea of how many children constituted a family.

"I get quite impassioned if you go to the cinema or a museum and buy a family ticket, it only covers two adults and two children," she said.

"It should not be down to a cinema or Jonathon Porritt to say how many people should make up my family."

Mr Porritt, who chairs the government's Sustainable Development Commission, said curbing population growth through contraception and abortion should be at the heart of the fight against global warming.

The commission's report will say that governments must reduce population growth through family planning.

"I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate," Mr Porritt said.

"I think we will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible. It is the ghost at the table."

The population of Britain, currently 61 million, is expected to pass 70 million by 2028.

The Optimum Population Trust, a campaign group of which Mr Porritt is a patron, estimates that a baby born in Britain will burn carbon equivalent to around two-and-a-half acres of oak woodland during their lifetime.

Mr Porritt has said he wants environmental activists to make population issues part of their campaigning.

But Ms Christie said that trying to tell people how many children they should have was a breach of their human rights.

"I don't want to live in a world where people are being told by the state or by an organisation that they can't have a third child. Putting a limit on is the wrong way to go," she said.

IN NUMBERS

70

per cent – proportion of mothers of babies between nine and 12 months who do some paid work.

25

per cent – proportion of mothers of nine to12-month-old babies 25 years ago who did some paid work.

33

per cent – proportion of 16-year-olds living apart from their biological father.

50

per cent – increased likelihood that children with separated parents will have problems, compared with those whose parents have not separated.

3,000

Number of children's centres in the UK.

25

per cent – proportion of children under eight with a registered childcare place.

600,000

Reduction in the number of children in Britain living in relative poverty compared with 20 years ago.

FACTS

CHINA introduced its one-child policy 30 years ago to help curb massive population growth and ensure economic security.

Previous governments had encouraged people to have a lot of children to increase the workforce. But by the 1970s the government realised growth could become unsustainable.

The Chinese government has estimated that since this policy began, 400 million births have been prevented. However, the measure is controversial, with claims of forced abortions and sterilisations to make sure people follow the rules.

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