Family estrangement and breakdown is a complex beast and is one often hidden from view in society. Yet the plight of grandparents who do not see their grandchildren is an area of estrangement that has been covered widely, mostly in sporadic clouds of tear-eliciting editorial.
More of this publicity emerged this week after the Ministry of Justice revealed around 2,500 grandparents opened court proceedings to be granted access to their grandchildren in 2014. Celebrity campaigners such as Esther Rantzen have been busy telling us all how important it is that grandchildren see their grandparents, and how grandparents are suffering without access to their grandchildren. Many organisations are suggesting that there should be legal changes to give grandparents automatic rights to contact with their grandchildren.
I have no contact with my parents, the would-be grandparents to my unborn children. This is a measure taken to safeguard my mental and physical wellbeing. And like so many others at Stand Alone, I cut contact because I'm determined to break the cycle. I want to leave my family history behind. I want to create a caring, loving and compassionate home: a home where my children are accepted and loved for whoever they are; a home that my children will know as safe, calm and consistent.
The idea of the law would introduce my parents into this picture, giving them access to my young children, is a dreadful violation of my judgement and free will. And if this change in the law came to pass as grandparent campaigners wish, I could potentially be strong-armed into seeing my parents again if they had the legal right to have contact with my children. I could be put back in a place of turmoil that I worked so hard to move away from as an adult, and so could my children.
This is not my only issue with the idea of enforced rights to contact. The legal right to have contact with grandchildren bypasses the hard work needed to fix relationships in family breakdown. It is a cheap way to avoid facing the idea that the grandparent might have had a part to play in the breakdown of the situation, and could be partly responsible for amicable contact becoming withheld in the first place. Changing the law and forcing a parent into giving contact is only set to put the child into a much more toxic battle of wills if it not wanted. And is that fair or healthy for the child?
Family breakdown happens most often when people, through pride and stubbornness, refuse to accept and validate the separate realities of other family members. And families break down further when members refuse to take ownership for their part in the hurt or the difficulties that people experience. Thus, perhaps the money that would be spent on campaigning for this French-style legislation could be re-directed, and spent on researching causes and forming interventions to broker better communication between family members.
I think that it's terrible that young children end up as the pawns in family breakdown and divorce, and I wouldn't want any grandchildren to miss out on the opportunity to see grandparents that have the skills to love and care for a child as a grandparent should.
But we must try and remember that grandparent estrangement is an under-researched area, and little is formally known of the nuances and trends behind why parents withhold contact from a grandparent. We don't know enough. So before thorough, extensive and accurate social research is published, we must not assume that all parents who deny a grandparent contact aren't acting with the best interests of their child in mind. And we certainly should not legislate against them.