At a time when the Government is embroiled in a damaging row over the planned move of the National Maternity Hospital its new National Model of Parenting Support Services displays a sincere and welcome commitment to parental wellbeing. The report comes at a critical time for families. It is clear that the two long years of Covid restrictions and anxieties have had a detrimental impact on wellbeing. Well-being, “how we are doing” as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future is the central concern of parenting.
Promoting parental wellbeing
There is now a substantial body of evidence supporting the viewpoint that it is crucial for government to directly engage in promoting parental wellbeing. For each and every one of us upbringing and family life shapes us and our connections with wider society. Children have the right to experience a good childhood, and for it to provide them with the means to grow and transition into a good adulthood. Children’s wellbeing is linked to their parents’ (mental and physical) wellbeing (and their opportunities to demonstrate unconditional love and have strong productive relationships) more than any other influence in their lives. There can be stark differences between the opportunities a family which is chaotic and struggling has to meet the needs of its members, and a family which is thriving. Often these differences are carried across generations. Families can be places that sustain and empower each of their members. They can also be places where individuals can feel isolated, lonely, and abandoned. The cost to everybody in terms of lost human, social and economic capital when parenting is seen as a peripheral rather than a core activity of a caring society is clear. Social pressures, rising costs and commodification are crowding out many of the motives and reasons that make parenting an attractive life choice. There is a mountain of economic reasons why young adults might think twice about having children -buying or renting a home at today’s prices, paying soaring household bills and affording expensive childcare so that both parents can keep working. Social pressure to have it all (and show that you have it all) means that parenting responsibilities go beyond creating a model family and extend to a wider self-optimization project including friendship networking, career advancement and personal growth and development. This pressure to be seen as a successful parent and prove ourselves, raise our game and outdo others has fed a burgeoning industry. It might appear paradoxical that as interest in being a parent declines–birthrates are falling worldwide- parenting advice and guidance has grown immeasurably. There are thousands of books for sale on various parenting topics, numerous information websites and an array of parenting advice columns in newspapers and magazines. Parenting has become a commodity with an intrinsic commercial value as the child rearing services provided on behalf of and for the benefit of wider society generate revenue for commercial interests. This commodification of family life downgrades its importance as a private space where children are reared and welfare is delivered. It also leads to a devaluing of the contribution families make to the common good through the production of human, social and cultural capital.
The role of the state in sustaining the value of parenting as a common good
The State’s commitment to supporting parents encapsulated in the National Model of Parenting Support Services Policy is therefore timely and long overdue. Historically the social contract between families and the state has prioritised economic relations over social relations. Families had to fend for themselves or seek the help of voluntary services and only one family form- the married male breadwinner model- was given official recognition. A dominant Catholic dogma, woven through the contract, limited State involvement in child rearing practices with education, health and wider social services confined to meeting basic needs. The new more ambitious policy direction outlined in the National Model is focused on promoting parental wellbeing and sustainable family life for traditional and new emerging parent groups. It will do this through working in partnership with parents, voluntary and community groups and co-producing information and services aimed at strengthening parents’ knowledge, confidence and skills to assist them in achieving beneficial outcomes for children and families. Support will be made available to meet different levels of need so that parents can engage in positive parenting activities which offer meaningful experiences and promote social cohesion and solidarity. Because there is a significant overlap between parenting supports, many of which have been developed by community and voluntary groups, and wider health, education and welfare services the Model proposes a whole-of Government approach to improving supports for parenting and helping parents to feel more confident, informed and able.
The value of the new model
This thoughtful and textured approach to supporting parents has been developed by a collaborative working group, led by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth between October 2020 and August 2021. The group’s work was informed through consultation with children and young people, qualitative and quantitative research with Irish parents, a major review of literature and regular feedback from key parenting support stakeholders including the Parenting Network. The Parenting Network, established in 2010, is a unique all-island network of agency directors/chief executive officers, practitioners, public officials, academics, trainers and policy influencers who are committed to seeking ways to improve family wellbeing in Ireland through Parenting Support .
Parents actively engage in projects of worth which are of benefit to children, communities and wider society. They are occupied with doing things that they love and that are of value in an independent way. The sustainability of parenting as an ultrasocial fulfilling endeavour is in doubt if it is not fully recognised and respected as a joint enterprise between citizens and the state. The National Model of Parenting Support Service has the potential to make this partnership an everyday reality.
Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.