Tuesday, 20 April 2010

On Being a Single Mother Today

It struck me the other day that despite the title of my blog, I don't really write very much about being a single parent at all. This is partly because my blog has morphed slightly into something other than what I originally thought it would be, and partly because again - in spite of the title - being a single mother specifically isn't actually a huge part of my identity.

Yesterday however I was commenting on a post over at Fertile Feminism about how mothering is not generally considered to be real work, and it inspired me to finally write a post about my experience of being a single mother in todays political climate, and how I feel it is different to that of being a married or partnered mother.

What I find is that there tend to be two polarised stereotypes of the single mother. The first - and by far the most popular - is that of a feckless young woman who deliberately "gets herself pregnant" in order to ensure that she is prioritized for a council house, and who then brings her children up to be ASBO ridden hooligans - feeding them entirely on chicken nuggets and coca cola - all courtesy of an over-stretched tax payer. The second is that we are noble martyrs in the face of bleak adversity and cruel stigma and that we are - and I think I might possibly be quoting the actress Emma Thompson here - "The brave heroines of our society."

I can't say that either one of those stereotypes sits particularly comfortably with me (although if I really had to pick one I know which one I'd plump for - thanks Emma.) Of course I can only ever speak from my own personal experience, but I don't actually find being a single mother hugely different to being a partnered one in practical terms. It's the social aspect that brings the changes, I have found.

I became a single mother through choice really. It wasn't that I particularly relished the prospect of bringing up three children on my own, but rather that the alternative - which was to stay in a relationship that had become unbearable - was much much worse. I have to say that I have been more than pleasantly surprised in a lot of ways. I really don't find the practical side of mothering any harder now than I did when I was living with a man who worked full time. I was doing the vast majority of the childcare and housework anyway. My partner would often come home and cook the dinner and wash the dishes, but he so bitterly resented having to do what he viewed as womens work, that rather than his contribution being helpful, it would just make me feel incredibly anxious, knowing as I did that the next time we had a row it would be used as ammunition against me. A few extra bits of cooking and washing up seem a very small price to pay for the relaxation and peace of mind that I am now able to enjoy in my own home to be honest.

We were a traditional family in the sense that although we were not married, my partner went out to work and I stayed at home to care for the children. I still stay at home to care for my children most of the time. I do odd bits of book-keeping work and I have done temporary paid work at Womens Aid covering peoples sabbaticals and sick leave, but for the most part I am still a stay at home mother whose day to day work has not really changed much at all in the last decade or so. What has changed though, crucially is that I am no longer living with a man who buys my food and pays my bills and so I am now often reliant on state benefits to pay for those things instead. That is all. I have gone from being David Camerons wet dream of a traditional 'wife' to being the scourge of his broken Britain. And the only thing that has changed is that I no longer have the financial support of a male partner.

I find this contradiction almost impossible to reconcile. The same people who blame the so called breakdown of society on women choosing to work outside the home rather than dedicate their entire lives to bringing up their children, also seek to label stay at home single mothers who need to claim state assistance to help with the cost of bringing up their children as being worthless scroungers - terrible burdens on society - whose children will grow up to be the criminals of tomorrow. Only one thing is clear, and that is that mothers - whatever choices they make - can never win.

The government are at the moment slowly working towards scrapping income support altogether (the age that your youngest child has to be in order for you to qualify is getting lower and lower) with the idea of eventually replacing it entirely with job seekers allowance, which is not nearly as much money and so will serve to force single women with dependent children out into the work-place. It will be interesting to see where the government suggests we all go to find part-time jobs that will pay enough to support our families, and that will also fit around school hours. I want to work. I want to give my children something to aspire to and I want them to see me working hard to support them. I've got skills and some experience that I can utilise but I can't find reasonably paid part time work that takes into account my caring responsibilities. I can't find it because it's not really out there. The only outcome of these radical reforms that are being implemented by stealth will be to simply plunge yet more women and their children into poverty - and this from a government who rode to power on the promise of cutting child poverty in half by 2010.

Never doubt that the success of the traditional nuclear family has often been built on the backs of womens misery. Over the centuries, women have been forced to stay with husbands who were violent and abusive, persistently unfaithful, or who treated them like servants simply because they had no choice. Women survived and guaranteed their childrens survival by sticking with a man who, whatever else, was prepared to financially support them. These days women no longer have to endure relationships that make them miserable and destroy their self-esteem. If we want to leave we can, indeed the majority of divorces are now initiated by women. If we are lucky we can earn enough money to be able to financially support ourselves and our families on our own - if not, we have a benefits system to fall back on while we find our feet. But instead of this being seen as progress and as evidence of how our society has become more free and humane, politicians everywhere are wringing their hands, wailing about a broken Britain, and seeking to gradually remove the safety net of the benefits system for mothers who do not have a male partner to financially support them and who, due to their caring responsibilities and circumstances are unable to pay their own way.

I am neither a feckless scrounger, nor a brave heroine. I'm just an ordinary woman trying to raise a reasonably happy family. Without access to single parent benefits I would have had no choice but to remain in a desperately unhappy relationship. Any woman can find herself suddenly in the position of needing the safety net of income support. All this talk of getting lone parents back to work might sound positive on the face of it, but it actually cloaks a hidden and dangerous agenda, which is an attack on all of our freedom.


  1. As I am in the same boat I agree whole heartedly with your article. Nine months ago I was part of a married couple raising our children with 2 incomes. I am now on my own and as the maintenance payments are low due the number of children my ex is responsible for I have to claim Income Support. I tried to work part time with 2 young children but it was too stressful. I do have a small business that I would like to build up on but it's a slow process as I can't afford to earn too much or else I lose out financially as benefits vanish rapidly! Does make it interesting on deciding who to vote for this time around..

  2. Brilliant post. When I grow up I want to be able to write posts like that.

    I have similar feelings to you on quite a few of these issues - if not all. I chose single parenthood over living with an aggressive man who made our lives unbearable. When he finally left (he was pushed) our routines and daily activities were almost unchanged, as he'd had little impact on the children's day to day lives and stood well back from any family interaction. The main change after his departure was the sudden return of music to the house - I started listening to music again, and it made me realise how much he had inhibited my personality, as listening to music had always been one of my pleasures.

    Mums can rarely win, as you say if you're a married mum you should stay at home and rear the children, but single parents - strangely - are not suitable to be stay-at-home mums and are comnpelled to go to work. WTF?

    Anyway, loved the post - I'd write a longer comment but I'm knackered and I still haven't done a lesson plan for tomorrow morning :-)

  3. What a great, smart post, Gappy! Good for you!

  4. It is always good to read clear, concise opinions especially about important topics like single parents. Not knowing the system in Britain well, I think it is about the same in the US. In order to qualify for any assistance, the paperwork alone is enough to discourage some parents. Then the system sets up assistance that is for a certain amount of time and then all the meetings and paperwork begin again to continue to qualify. I worked to support my three kids but I missed out on so much by doing that.

  5. Single mothers are such an easy target for governments because there seems to be a certain percentage of voters who still subscribe to the theory that they're all morally bankrupt or welfare bludgers. I'm saddened to hear that the UK seems to be heading down that path with 'welfare reform'. I think it really relates to the wider problem that parenting and the work of mothering is just not valued. So it's okay if women are subsidised in doing that work by their husband/partner, but society at large? Hell no.

    I know I would struggle more than financially as a single mum: I really have the greatest respect for single parents. My father was one, with me, for a short time, and it was tough.

  6. I really like the way you show how the perception of women entirely depends on whether she has a man paying for her bills... If your husband leaves you, you go from being a saint to a lowlife! Things don't change, do they? Also, it's funny (as in not) how women can both be expected to be stay at home mothers, because if they work, they're selfish and not putting their kids' well being first, but as soon as they're single and they choose not to work, they're lazy! Hmm...

  7. mothering that costs nothing = good
    mothering that costs $$ = bad

    Its that simple. All the rest is just concocted "moral" outrage

  8. That is all. I have gone from being David Camerons wet dream of a traditional 'wife' to being the scourge of his broken Britain. And the only thing that has changed is that I no longer have the financial support of a male partner.

    THIS. Absolutely.

    The only thing that I have found slightly different than you is this. Yes, similarly to you, I did pretty much all the housework when I was married (my ex did the cooking but it was, how to put it, erm, "man cooking" where he would spend hours in the kitchen which conveniently got him out of doing more mundane jobs, and leave a kitchen full and I do mean full of dishes to wash, and expect a bloody award for doing this one thing) in addition to working a part time job.

    However, since splitting, I couldn't say I find it pretty much the same; my ex pays maintenance but that financial support, in terms of, if the washing machine broke we could just go out and buy a new one for two or three hundred quid *like that* and it would only mean tightening our belts for a few months. Whereas now I have to think about going to some dodgy hire/purchase place, or buying a reconditioned one which I know will break just after the three month warranty... also I miss the fact he had a car so I could just go to places without having to plan a route with dodgy public transport.

    I also miss the ability (not that I used it often; I think twice in two years) to be able to have an appalling night and say "here, you take the baby for an hour while I catch up on my sleep". I used it so rarely because he would make it so clear that it was such a one-off (because he had a Big Important Full Time Job to do) but... it was there.

    This is why I think as single Mums (or even not-single Mums but Mums with unhelpful partners) a community, alloparents, all that help - is so important. And yet it's something we seriously lack.

  9. Very good post. However, I would say that it is the same no win situation for single fathers as well. My husband' first wife passed away in 2001 and he had to stop working to care for his then 2 and 4 year old. Sure, he could have continued to work and let the children grow up in the daycare system, but what is better for the children (if there is an option) - letting the parent be there for them.

    Where I come from (the US) there are no good viable options for single parents like there are here, and it is a shame that the government is cutting the age back for benefits. Back home I know many people who have had no choice but send their 6 week old children to daycare so that they can make a living (new mothers only get 6 weeks maternity leave). Even when there are two parents living together, that is often necessary.

    My husband got judged by other parents because he was a single parent - and worse yet - a single dad (gasp!).

  10. Great, great post. And very interesting. I was raised by a single mother. It wasn't her choice to be single---my dad left when I was young and I haven't seen him since I'm 11. In those days, deadbeat dads were the norm and the government did nothing but make it difficult for my mom to contact him. In the end, she never got a dime from my father and gave up on the legal system in order to preserve her sanity and peace.

    I was also a single mother for the first 7 years of my eldest daughter's life. But I was very fortunate to be in a good job before I had my daughter and it would be a very different picture now that I'm a stay-at-home mum. Because, as you said, it is so difficult to find a decent paying job and raise happy children at the same time. Especially if you've taken a break from the workplace. And you're right, anyone can find themselves in the position of single mother at any time. If 'it takes a village to raise a child' then we should all be working together, not polarizing women based on stereotypes.

  11. I guess it was also my "choice" to be single, but is it really a choice at all when you know that the longer you stay in your relationship, the worse it will be for all involved?
    I think the main issue at the monent is not the government cutting back on income support, but the fact that they give so many incentives for mothers to begin to work, but absolutely none to employers who employ mothers. Therefore, the work is simply not there for us. My son will be starting at nursery school in September, I would love to work for 2 1/2 hours every morning while he is there, but where could I possibly find anyone willing to give me the work?

  12. Thank you to everybody who has taken the time to comment. I love reading them and always appreciate the feed-back.

    It is always interesting for me to see other peoples perspectives on this topic, and I'm always especially interested to see how other single mothers manage to successfully combine working outside their homes with their caring responsibilities, as I know from experience how hard this can be.

  13. Wow! Excellently put!! I do my best to squash the stereotype with my blog but then find myself feeding right into it. Rant, rant, rant.. I look forward to the day I can articulate myself like you and flatten the lies about us. Instead tonight I responded to a comment saying I was er, feckless... you see, feeding right into it...
    Great post, thank you!!

  14. Most single mothers still want to go back to college to have a good pay in the future. There are lots of help for single moms

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  16. Have I told you just how bloody marvellous you are? Well you are. Totally Brilliant. And whilst what Ms Thompson has to say about single mums is all very nice, isn't there something just a little patronising there? Maybe its just me who hears that as I imagine her worthy upper-class tone spouting off.

    You are a great Mum (we know that, you swing like an ape through trees for your kids. literally) but also that you can write like this, with such clarity and insight into the current political climate affecting single mothers and its ramifications for the future is incredible. You should be very proud of this piece of work. It's outstanding writing.

    MD xx