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Opinion Irish family life has changed dramatically in just one generation

Domestic life is more diverse than ever – but strong relationships, love and support within families are more important than their structure.

WHEN GWYNETH PALTROW and Chris Martin announced earlier this year that they would ‘consciously uncouple’, they introduced new terminology that quickly inspired lots of derisive humour and funny internet memes. It’s really not a term that most of us would think of using! Having said that, couples can separate well and when they have children, it’s especially important to plan to do this.

This is National Parent’s Week and so it’s a great opportunity to celebrate the wonderful diversity of parents and families that live in Ireland today. Family life has changed dramatically over the past generation. Children might live with one parent all the time, or two parents some of the time each, or with grandparents, foster parents or an adoptive parent.

Children today might know that their parents had help conceiving them; they might live in a same-sex headed family; with a step-parent or with their biological mum and dad. None of these family types or situations is better or worse for children than another, as research has shown repeatedly that what is important are the relationships, love and support within families rather than their structure.

The abolition of ‘illegitimacy’

When One Family was founded as Cherish back in 1972 by a small group of mothers who were not married, they had to battle be allowed to raise their own children. They fought prejudice, poverty and discriminatory laws, successfully lobbying for the abolition of the status of illegitimacy. It seems hard now to believe that this was a legal status right up to 1987.

Much has progressed but, of course, families without legal recognition and social supports can be weakened and if children and families go through difficult transitions they can really benefit from some specialist supports.

Take the long process of separation. This can be an experience as varied as each family that goes through it. We hear from parents who call our askonefamily helpline that they sometimes feel at a loss where to start. It seems that everything is changing. They need to make very difficult decisions about where everyone will live, when children will spend time with each parent and what they will contribute financially. This is usually done against a backdrop of extreme emotions – confusion, anger, grief – and many decisions need to be translated into legal directives. This is a huge ask for most parents as all they want to do is to try their best to keep their focus on their children’s well-being.

Separation and divorce are realities, not aberrations

Family support and legal services that can help families separate well include mediation, parenting programmes and mentoring, counselling, alternative dispute resolution and collaborative law processes. These are supports proven to help parents focus on their children and make good decisions that will stand the test of time. The draft Children and Family Relationships Bill places more of an emphasis on keeping these important decisions regarding children out of court and on supporting parents to make decisions themselves, which is good news. Services, policies and laws need to be in place to recognise separation and divorce as realities, not something to be treated as an aberration. This is real life.

As an organisation that offers services to people parenting alone, sharing parenting and going through transitions, One Family has a number of specialist support services that may be helpful to parents separating. Today we are launching our new parenting programme Positive Parenting for Changing Families at a seminar in Dublin Castle, and other new and expanded services. We will hear about national parenting policy and how parents can be best supported when they need help.

Blame and judgement are harmful  

Parents themselves are the best possible support for their children. If we can all recognise what helps parents at those times of transition or stress, we can help them and their children to do really well. We just have to understand that all parents and families are different and that transitions such as separation bring unique challenges. It is not helpful, and can be damaging to parents and children, when parents are judged or blamed for their family situation and that’s why we speak about Positive Parenting to build on the strengths that are already there.

National Parent’s Week is a great time to celebrate all the parents who do their best for their children in diverse families that are sometimes not seen or recognised, and all the parents who work so hard in difficult times such as separating to keep their children at the centre of parenting. It’s a time to celebrate all the parents who are brave enough to ask for help when they really need it, and all parents who – no matter their family circumstances – really are everyday heroes.

Karen Kiernan is CEO of One Family and Chair of All Families Matter.

Members of one-parent families and those experiencing separation can call One Family’s lo-call askonefamily helpline on 1890 66 22 12 for information and a listening ear. Information on specialist supports available is on

Column: Radical change on the way for (some) unmarried fathers

Confused about separation or divorce? New videos aim to offer simple advice

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