Orphans: how we continue to fail children who lose their parents

All would agree that when children lose their parents it is tragic, yet orphans have so often been neglected and abused.

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After love, the emotion I most associate with motherhood is fear. A sort of existential separation anxiety drove me to the brink of madness in the first few months of my daughter’s life and then lodged itself permanently at the periphery of my consciousness, too big to ignore and too frightening to confront head-on. My daughter and I need each other so much it terrifies me.

Such subjects are not easy to broach at playdates or even new mothers’ support groups, so I’ve felt grateful for the recent flurry of books (Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood), films (Tully) and TV shows (The Letdown, Motherland) exploring the thornier aspects of motherhood. Jeremy Seabrook’s Orphans promises an illuminating counterpoint to this cultural preoccupation with maternity. If, as Rose contends, motherhood “is the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings… which it becomes the task – unrealisable, of course – of mothers to repair”, how should we understand the motherless, or the unmothered?

Seabrook argues that while orphans are often the object of charitable concern and pity, they stir more troubling emotions too. Families are the foundational institution of society and individuals who lack these primary social ties have long been viewed as a potentially malevolent and disruptive force, not to mention an “irritant” for policymakers keen to maintain social order. All would agree that when children lose their parents it is tragic, yet orphans have so often been neglected and abused.

Modern readers might be horrified to know that in some workhouses of the 18th century, where poor and dispossessed children were to be redeemed though hard work, the mortality rate was 90 per cent. They might be surprised too to learn that while today global life expectancy is 69 years, for orphans it is less than half that.

The historic injustices perpetuated against children without parents, or with parents who are deemed unfit, linger to the present day. Orphaned street children are still treated with callous disregard in many countries of the developing world. And in the West, young people “in care”, wards of the state shuttled between foster homes, rarely recover from their childhood disadvantage. In the US, for instance, a quarter of foster care leavers end up homeless.

A theme running through Orphans is the distinction policymakers and do-gooders have drawn between children whose childhood and family lives are sacrosanct and those who must be tamed by the authorities. Who is seen to deserve care and empathy? Though Seabrook focuses primarily on the UK and south-east Asia, the question is of pressing importance in the US today, where hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents at the border are at risk of being effectively orphaned by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The country’s newly galvanised anti-abortion movement appears to extend more concern to unborn children than to, say, the hundreds of thousands of children separated from their mothers each year under a criminal justice system that targets poor women and women of colour.

Had Seabrook arranged his history chronologically it might have been easier to trace the institutional and cultural roots of our modern attitudes towards orphans, or to follow how the distinctions between deserving and undeserving children are cast and redrawn. But the book jumps between the past and the present, between the UK and the developing world, and it was hard to keep track of the narrative.

He writes about eight children who were orphaned in 1808 in the Lake District when both their parents died on a walk in the fells. Seabrook hears a “cruel echo” of this when seven children were orphaned in Illinois in 2017, the father killed in a house fire, the mother when she plunged her car into a lake. I grasped for some more pro-found connection between the two events, but the only parallel seemed to be that sometimes, bad things happen. It was a problem that recurred. Seabrook hears “echoes” of historic events in modern social justice issues, but he does not probe them, and the comparisons can seem superficial. On occasion he seems to attach analytical significance to pure coincidence: he describes John Lennon as “yet another orphan whose life was cut short, apparently at random”.

In a final chapter, which feels redundant but which I suspect was something Seabrook wanted to get off his chest, he writes about the “cultural orphans” of the 21st century. Children these days are being raised by “the market”.

“No longer able to divert and delight one another out of their own native store of imagination they turn to the phantasms emanating from the minds of ‘creatives’ employed by an industrialised entertainment industry,” he complains. “Parents humble – even humiliate – themselves before their children, begging them to choose this or that delicacy, consulting them as oracles before any major expenditure.”

The argument is so overblown that it is hard to take seriously. Such issues have, in any case, been covered exhaustively by an over-abundance of parenting literature.

Seabrook is a veteran writer of the left, and his work always reflects a profound commitment to social justice. Orphans does provide a timely corrective to our current obsession with parenting, but his argument could be more tightly focused
and more searching. 

Orphans: A History
Jeremy Seabrook
Hurst, 320pp, £20

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad