Nuclear Overload

HARRY PRANCE addresses the issue of why children of divorced parents are being academically out-performed.

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Cambridge’s minorities tend to receive much attention nationally and locally, but there’s one that is never talked about: the children of divorced parents.

I came to Cambridge never having thought of myself particularly as the child of divorced parents: as if it were a thing? In fact, it seemed at school as if the majority of my friends’ parents had split at some point; this might have been the result of a peculiarly large number of marriages which had been based on financial as opposed to amorous desire, or maybe there’s just something in the water of Cheltenham Spa.

My family alone seemed to have more children of divorce than my Cambridge friends. My grandparents had divorced and of my mother’s 5 siblings 4 had all divorced, two of them (including my mother) twice, except for one uncle who, until this autumn, we had assumed had never been married (he’d actually been espoused for ten years but maintained a concerted effort to keep it a secret).

‘Normal’ marital relations and the clan Sinclair don’t seem to get on too well.

But the more I thought about it, the less bizarre my family seemed and the more odd Cambridge seemed in turn. Just take a look at the BBC’s flagship Child of Our Time which aims to encompass all elements of family life in 21st Century Britain: 13 years in, and just over half the parents involved have divorced or separated. The ONS expects 34% of all married couples to end their relationship in divorce. So where are all the children of divorce in Cambridge?

I found it baffling when I got here that the vast majority of my friends seemed to
come from what seemed to me odd but sweet relics of the fifties — except trade the
white picket fence for an Islington townhouse or an overpriced suburban house in the commuter belt. Except that makes it sound as if it’s connected to privilege, and if anything, there was a greater correlation between those of my friends who came from less affluent backgrounds and those who had neat nuclear families.

Now this is not a great lament about how hard I and other children of divorce in Cambridge have had it. It isn’t a rallying cry for a CUSU support group, or an anonymous campaign to fight for specific divorce based access programmes; nor am I promoting the wonders of a complex and modern family. I think these things should be fairly self-explanatory: single mothers, single fathers, step-families and all the range of familial constructions present in Britain today only offer fresh perspectives on what constitutes family life.

But is it Cambridge that has a divorce problem? I can hardly imagine some great
conspiracy among interviewers to weight the system in favour of the ‘traditional’ family set up. The problem is not so much the way Cambridge deals with divorce as it is Britain. It can hardly be that children from nuclear families are inherently smarter than children from other backgrounds. The stats on what divorce can do to a child’s intellectual performance are pretty damaging. But you have to be a bit of a prat to see divorce as the causation. Contrary to popular opinion, a workable divorce is possible and can even be for the best  — who wouldn’t appreciate fewer parental shouting matches and the eventual addition of two new, cuter siblings?

In terms of state help in divorce transition, the UK does bugger all. The USA is
somewhat ahead of the curve providing courses and information for parents in the
middle of divorce on how to maintain stable family life. This might sound vaguely farcical to cynical ears and normally I’d be the first to think a state funded divorce for dummies course sounds more than a little fishy. But it’s hard not to recognise that for many families without the marital record of my own, divorce is a fairly alien concept. Even for those who are well acquainted with it, how many of them are as aware of an ideal or functional divorced family as they are of the increasingly more fairytale myth of a happy marriage?

Divorce sounds like a big scary word to a lot of people, but it isn’t. Marital relationships are as exposed to the whims of life and the general shit that accompanies them as any other relationship. A signed document, a name change and a couple of vows doesn’t alter that. Just because a marriage ends in 10 years doesn’t necessarily make it any less valuable than one that lasts for life.

It’s ridiculous that this argument needs to be made in 2013 but we can’t escape the
fact that we have a divorce problem. As long as kids from married families continue to disproportionately outperform kids from divorced or separated families, we’re not doing our jobs properly and an almost ever-increasing proportion of children are the ones getting fucked over.