Penelope Leach’s book is making a big impact as THE book that all separating parents must read to ensure they are meeting their children’s needs. In this article, Mail on Sunday writer Catherine O’Brien considers the importance of its messages on topics such as contact, overnight stays, and avoiding psychological damage. She also looks at the fascinating story of how Penelope came to write the book – and explains that part of the reason is her own experiences when her parents divorced.
Catherine O’Brien wrote:
As Britain’s leading childcare guru, Penelope Leach has always appeared to be supremely deft at handling controversy. Breastfeeding on demand, nursery daycare, smacking – her views remain as firmly held (yes/proceed with caution/definitely not) as her signature bobbed hairstyle. ‘I say things as I see them which doesn’t make me always right, but at least it’s honest. And I certainly don’t say things to be popular,’ she explains briskly when we meet at her Sussex home, a house that, with its 60s-style furnishings and minimal clutter, is as elegantly streamlined as its owner.
This year, however, for the first time in her long and distinguished career, Penelope admits to having avoided her own press. The crunch moment came in June with the publication of her ground-breaking new book on divorce. In Family Breakdown: Helping Children Hang on to Both Their Parents, she cited neuroscientific evidence which shows that children under four, and particularly those under two, can suffer detrimental brain development if parted overnight from their primary caregiver. Unless infants or toddlers are equally securely attached to both their parents, her strong recommendation – backed by the research – is that when mothers and fathers separate, sleepovers need to be planned with extreme care.
As the primary caregiver in more than 90 per cent of families is the mother, this was spun into headlines declaring that overnight stays with dads are harmful, and fathers’ rights groups were predictably apoplectic. One described Penelope’s advice as ‘absolute poison’. Another labelled her a ‘dangerous bigot’. ‘When you read those horrible and mendacious words, you are not at your best for the rest of the day, so I had to stop, and, yes, bits of it hurt,’ she says. ‘I suppose what was most shattering of all was the idea that people might think I’m anti fathers, because if there is one message of the book, it is that children need both their mother and father more than we ever knew.’
Six months on from the furore, Family Breakdown is already into a second print run – one that includes additional freshly published research reinforcing the risks involved in ‘high frequency’ sleepovers for some under-threes. In September, as nonexecutive director of the Mindful Policy Group – a psychology-awareness campaign – Penelope was among experts hosting a conference at the Houses of Parliament addressing barristers, judges and politicians on the latest attachment science and its implications when legislating shared-time parenting. Meanwhile, she notes, there has been a dearth of women’s groups raging about her sharp words for newly separated mothers who coerce their children into taking sides. ‘I make it clear in the book that, no matter how much women hate their partners, they have got to let their children love them, but no one has picked up on that. Why do you think that might be?’ she asks, frowning quizzically from behind her glasses. Perhaps, I suggest, it’s because mothers are too busy to mount public rants? ‘You said it, but I absolutely agree with you,’ she shoots back. ‘And also I do think it has something to do with the fact that mothering carries an automatic guilt load. Whatever you do as a mother, you never feel quite good about yourself. That’s not something I’ve seen in fathers.’