And They All Lived Happily Ever After

13th December 2008

Clare Finney gets together with family at Christmas. It’s not as easy as it sounds…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring – apart from my stepfather, whose turn it was to play Santa this year, and my stepmother who was preparing once again to cater for the big family Christmas… mother and stepmother, father and stepfather, children and stepchildren.

No, this is not wishful thinking from the offspring of a broken home. Nor is it Channel 4’s latest ‘reality’ TV series. In fact, this remarkable feat of familial diplomacy is my Christmas: the time when, for two precious days, the seven people I love best in the world sit down at the same table and rejoice together. That this group consists of wives and husbands both ex and new, is of very little significance; they are all, indisputably, my family. Blood may be thicker than water, but love is law unto itself – regardless of marital history.

Yet even with this thought in mind, the facts facing children today are stark. Last year more than half of all divorces involved at least one child under 16 – that’s 125,000 young people (most actually under the age of 11) facing the physical and emotional upheaval that comes with a failed marriage. Most are under 11. Divorce is no fairy story, and the sort of harmonious ‘happy ending’ found in my family was certainly not formed overnight.

I know that the notion that ‘Mummy still loves Daddy’ is second only to ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’ in a long line of hollow divorce clichés that soon fall on stony ground. Even years later I found many of my peers almost as resentful of these false assurances as they were of the divorce itself. It is an inconvenient truth that, along with their hawk eyes and wigging ears, children have the sensitivity of a seismometer when it comes to detecting emotional tension – something that estranged parents would do well to remember.
In this remarkably tolerant and diverse 21st century society, there is no such thing as a ‘normal family’. If the marital melting pot that is my Christmas demonstrates anything at all, it is that the keystone of being together as parents isn’t a marriage certificate or a gold band, it’s compromise.

As the head of the family department at leading law firm Mishcon de Reya, Sandra Davis knew what she was talking about when she declared that “When money looks like flying out of the window, love walks out the door”; as the infamous Heather Mills so excellently demonstrated, financial problems between man and wife rarely stop at the divorce courts. The real sadness, though, is that working together on such a sensitive and important issue is – in my experience – one of the best ways of maintaining a degree of parental ‘normality’. While being united in holy matrimony may be an impossibility, being united in a joint account for childcare costs needn’t be. For my brother and I, the sight of both names on the cheque book isn’t just a sign of financial security, it is also an important symbol that, even if they’re not man and wife, they’re still mum and dad.

Of course, money isn’t the only thing that matters. Even when the pound signs have been removed from the equation, the slippery issue of time still remains, with questions of ‘how much’ and ‘to whom’ dominating custody battles the world over. Solutions, if and when they are found, are almost impossible to enforce; only through vigilant clock-watching has the equality policy adopted by my parents been maintained, as they plan their lives months in advance in order that each get exactly 182.5 days a year.

Like skilled chess players, they navigate their way through complex moves (like swapping the weekend of the 14th in August 2010 with two Wednesdays and the morning of the bank holiday plus the 12th of the following January) with remarkably sportsmanlike tact. United by a common goal – that my brother and I have at least a vague idea of where we might be sleeping each night – their ability to agree over custody is yet another important sign that they can still sing from the same parental hymn sheet.

Admittedly cooperating over custody is a long way from singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas along with subsequent spouses, but it is a significant example of the many friendly gestures that have brought them together. Unnerving as was to hear my mother and stepmother happily discussing my father’s snoring habits over the turkey trimmings, I have nevertheless come to appreciate the care, the love and the downright courage that has ultimately gone into making such bizarre conversations possible.

Indeed, I count myself lucky that, in a world where having two living parents is considered a blessing, I have managed to end up with four. Recent reports show that, increasingly, scientists are coming to regard nurture as being of at least equal, and very often of greater importance than nature in determining child development (finding that we have far fewer genes than expected suggested that environmental influences play a greater role in personal development than was previously thought); when I consider the pervasive influence that my non-genetic (ie step-) parents have had on my education and development, I can see how this works. Words of wisdom are plentiful, and the powerful cocktail of experiences, regrets and recommendations that continues to sustain my brother and me through many of our big decisions more than makes up for the tedium that comes with the four-fold nagging.

Forget what they say about variety and spice, in a life where your immediate family spans fifty years, six professions, five counties and two countries, variety is the main meal. The permutations seem endless – as does the confusion created each time I meet someone new. Questions about hometowns and families are difficult to avoid, but while the complete and unabridged intricacies of my family life always seemed a bit big for small talk, I sometimes found the condensed edition – two homes and a straight list of all my six brothers and sisters – had a disturbing tendency to result in raised eyebrows and snide remarks about contraception.

For a while I managed to avoid the whole divorce shebang by offering up a carefully simplified version of my home life – alternating between sassy city girl in a flat in central London and one of six rosy-cheeked children in the wilds of Hertfordshire according to the society, the weather or how just I felt at the time – yet this approach proved rather difficult to sustain upon further acquaintance.

Remembering which version I’d told whom was difficult, particularly when the slightest mistake left me looking at best like a mild schizophrenic, and at worst a compete fraud (one similarly-situated confidant told me she’d tried the same sort of approach to the tedious task of filling in application forms, only to find herself at the centre of a security alert at the bank when she failed to confirm the first line of her address).

Annoying? Sometimes. Embarrassing too. But I would willingly suffer a thousand of the awkward silences that follow these daft faux pas than find myself victim to the sort of pettiness described by friends who have found themselves acting as go-between because neither parent will talk to the other, or being forced to spy on and then bitch about their dad’s new girlfriend, or arranging separate seats and different restaurants at their own graduation.

Even if your marriage is broken, the children – whose very DNA is testimony to that union – must remain whole. Force them to take sides, and you effectively force them to deny a part of themselves; see their lives as common ground, and you might even get a friendship into the bargain.

Two broken marriages, one Christmas dinner. It’s not quite what you’d expect from a fairy-story, but, as divorces go, I think this happy ending is probably as good as it gets.

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