I became a single mother nearly 11 years ago, when the strain of trying to keep a relationship going with a man who was making no effort to keep a relationship going with me, became too much.
I fought very hard against becoming a single parent. Like most of us, I’d swallowed the message that having two parents is the ideal way for a child to be brought up in our society. It’s a myth that’s pushed very hard, sometimes subtly, sometimes really obviously, but always pushed. I knew the bad news: children of single parents are much more likely to truant, to be criminals, to use drugs, to go to prison, to get divorced, to be violent, to have mental health problems, to get cancer, to lower house prices, to be Daily Mail readers – oh the horrors I would be inflicting on my children if I was so selfish as to not subsume my outrage at being expected to tolerate intolerable behaviour from a man who lived with me, just because he was the father of my children and so that entitled him to a level of toleration for bad behaviour, that no-one would think was reasonable to tolerate from anyone else.
Over the years I’ve looked behind the statistics and discovered that they are a very cleverly promoted myth. In every case except one that I’ve come across (out of loads) if you take out income as a variable factor, the outcomes for the children of lone parents are exactly the same as that of their peers. And if their parent with care has a degree, even the low income ceases to be an important factor in outcomes for children.
Yep that’s right: the only reason that children of lone parents have consistently worse outcomes than children of two parents, is because they have a low income. If you compare the children of poor lone parents with the children of poor couples, their outcomes are similar. If you compare the children of rich lone parents with those of rich couples, their outcomes are similar. The reason that children of lone parents have bad outcomes compared to children of couples, is because children of couples grow up in richer families. That’s all it is – money. That is not something you are going to read with any regularity in the media. Instead, they are shrieking at women that if we are selfish enough to leave the fathers of our children, we are disadvantaging our children.
It never seems to occur to the people who write those articles, to urge men to stop being such unacceptable living companions that women can’t bear to tolerate living with them even for the sake of their incomes and the respectable status they confer on us; or to pay a proper amount of maintenance so that they don’t disadvantage their children (the majority of non-resident parents pay no maintenance and of those who do, the average sum is a woefully paltry amount). It also never occurs to them to campaign for workplaces to be adapted to the needs of all its workers, not just the ones without caring responsibilities, so that more lone parents can work in jobs which actually pay enough to meet living expenses; or to call on benefits to be higher to ensure that children of lone parents are not disadvantaged. No, the only solution they can see, is for men and women to stay together and role-model an unhappy relationship to their children.
Because that was the propaganda I’d heard all my life, I tried to hold the relationship together, before realising that I was the only one bothering to try to do that. Women are given the very clear message from when they are very young, that relationships are their business – that they are responsible for working on them. Look at magazines aimed specifically at boys and men versus those aimed specifically at girls and women. It’s immediately obvious who has been appointed the guardian of the Sacred Relayshunship, where the onus lies, on keeping it healthy, happy and alive.
For years, I didn’t notice that I was the only one working on making this relationship work, because that was the natural order of things. Women’s time, our energy, our focus, is directed towards making relationships work, because to break up a relationship, even where there are no children involved, is sold to us as a really big deal. We aren’t told that every day, we should ask ourselves why we are continuing to be in this relationship; we are told that every day, we should do something to maintain it without asking why. Breaking it up is seen as a frivolous, immature, flaky sort of way of carrying on – the sign of someone with “ishoos”, someone who is afraid of commitment, has psychological problems, can’t maintain a relationship because they are somehow damaged or wrongly-wired.
I had fallen for all those lies, so of course I went into denial about the fact that I was horribly unhappy in the relationship I had. That is the most common self-defence women have in unhappy relationships: pretend it’s not “as bad as all that”. They compare the relationships that other women have with the men they live with, with their own relationship, instead of comparing their relationships to that of the men they actually live with. So for ages – weeks, months, years – women don’t notice that they are the only ones doing the emotional work of the relationship – the attempts to make everyone happy, to balance everyone’s needs, to ensure that the family unit runs as smoothly as possible. The effort of doing this, is immense; when you let it go, it’s like putting down an enormous burden that you hadn’t realised you were carrying. The day my ex left, I put on loud music and danced around the kitchen while I cleaned it.
Without that drag on my energy and resources, I was able to really grow and flourish as a person and as a mother. One of the major advantages of becoming a lone parent, is that because of the stigma associated with it, unless you are deeply wedded to denial, you are forced to confront the choices you have made in your life; why had you taken up with a man who had absolutely no capacity for emotional intimacy, when that was what you deeply desired? Why had you had children with someone who was obviously incapable of functioning as a parent? Why had you chosen as a partner, someone who couldn’t do partnership? It’s a question that’s often asked of lone parents by the smug partnered who don’t think to think before they talk; but it is also a question many lone parents ask themselves. I would never have asked myself that, or found the answers, if I hadn’t split from my ex.
So there’s another benefit of splitting up relationships – it prompts ruthless honesty. If you stay in an unhappy relationship, you never have to examine your motives and attitudes – in fact, in an emotionally unhealthy relationship, it is dangerous to do so, because it makes you question your relationship and leads you towards the dreaded break-up. Deep down, women in unhappy relationships know that, so they pull that comforting cloak of denial tighter around them to protect the family unit that is damaging them so much.
Without the energy-sapping requirement to keep an unhealthy relationship going, I was free to examine what did actually constitute a healthy relationship and I was also free to examine what sort of mother I wanted to be and could be. While I was deep in denial about my relationship and childhood, I couldn’t come close to developing into any sort of aware, functional mother. I would always have had to steer round the elephant in the room of this dysfunctional relationship in which I was trying to be a “normal” mother. So many women do that. They are desperate to give their children normal, healthy, happy childhoods, while at the same time doing so within the confines of a destructive, unhealthy, unhappy relationship. Society tells them that if they leave this relationship, they will be dysfunctional, “broken” – when in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. My family was broken all the time I lived with the father of my children. The healing process started, the day I realised I couldn’t go on living with him anymore. Now, we’re not broken; we’re fixed.
When politicians and media commentators talk about broken families and I know they’re talking about mine, I always have a grimace about their sheer stupidity: I know that when my family really was broken, those idiots had nothing to say about us; as long as you’re in a couple, you’re not frightening the horses and any amount of dysfunction, emotional abuse, or even violence, can be justified in the name of the family. As long as you’re not directly costing the state money from your domestic arrangements, they’re approved of, however unhealthy (the indirect costs, like decreased productivity, NHS resources for depression-related illnesses etc, are all worth the price of keeping the nuclear family together).
And yet there are so many couples who live unhappy, dysfunctional lives; who role model unhappiness to their children, who teach them that what to expect from adult relationships, is unhappiness, resentment, lack of respect, lack of love. Those families are never called broken. Because there is a man in them, so they’re OK.
There are so many myths about being a single parent. The main one, is how difficult it is. When we’re not being lambasted as being promiscuous, irresponsible, feckless hoo-ers, we are being talked about as some kind of super-women – they don’t know how we do it. Everyone has a different experience of single parenthood, some find it harder than others, but the big secret that the media, right-wing politicians and abusive men, don’t want women to know, is how much easier it is to be a single parent, than to live with a man who doesn’t treat you as an equal human being with an equally important life and an equal requirement and entitlement, for leisure, rest, love and respect.
For many women, the drudgery of bringing up children on their own, is not that different to what they experienced while they were still living with a man. Lots of men have a deep down belief (which to be fair to them, they’re not actually aware they have, until it’s pointed out to them) that they really shouldn’t have to do the boring, tiresome, unvalued, invisible work of running a house. Up until the time children come along, they believe in equality and they pull their weight and do their fair share in their house. But you know, that’s really easy when there are only 2 adults living there. There isn’t actually that much housework to do, which is something you don’t realise until you’ve had children and then you realise how little there was prior to that.
When children arrive though, suddenly all that equality goes out the window. That’s partly because of maternity leave and so little paid paternity leave; but it’s not just that, because when maternity leave comes to an end, the pattern has been set: the mother is still doing the day to day caring for the child, the planning and over-seeing of the running of the household and the emotional work of keeping the family happy. The dim and distant days of equal leisure time, fade into memory and are put down to being non-parents, rather than the power-shift that has happened in the household.
So when you become a lone parent, you don’t actually have that much less leisure time, than you had when you were living with a man. Many women actually have more – their time and energy isn’t being taken up with the wifework of managing the sacred relayshunship and negotiating with their partners. Where men have contact with their children and take them away for the weekend, some women have far more leisure time than they would ever have had, had they stayed with the man who used to dump all the labour on them. Some actually have more disposable income than they had while they were living with men; financial abuse of stay-at-home-mums is a feature of some relationships which hit the rocks and dole rates can look staggeringly generous compared to the pittance some women are grudgingly given by their mean and selfish partners (do I need to mention my friend who was paid £290 a month to buy all the food, clothes, books, uniform, transport etc., for her and her 2 sons? Who was then criticised by her abusive husband for not buying enough meat and being a lousy money-manager?)
And the in the evenings, after 7PM (or 8PM or 9PM, depending on how old your children are), you have leisure time. You don’t have to negotiate with another adult who feels he has more rights than you because he brings more money into the house, about what to watch on TV. You don’t have to talk to him about his incompetent colleagues or his unreasonable boss. You don’t have to have sex at his convenience. If you don’t feel like tidying up, you don’t have to and no-one will criticise you. If you want to spend an hour on the phone with your friend, no-one will demand your attention and sulk that they’re not getting it.
That’s all the things you don’t have to do. What you can do:
Watch what you like on TV
Go on the internet and chat to your friends all evening
Do exercise without interference
Read without being interrupted
Arrange dates with lovers who don’t demand anything of you
Have dates with lovers who don’t demand anything of you (children sleep very soundly)
Catch up with work
Write articles on how great it is to be a single mother
Get a babysitter and go out with friends
Whatever you want really
Where patriarchy is concerned, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is never too far away and the flip-side of the Jeremy Kyle-candidate stereotype of single mothers, is the supposedly positive view of us as super-women heroines. In a country where over a quarter of families are headed by single mothers, even our media cannot relentlessly portray all of us as feckless idiots, so they’ve had to come up with a stereotype that’s more positive, but equally off-putting for most women: the amazing, awesome, super-human single mother who is so competent and brilliant at it, that you, ordinary mother with husband, cannot hope to measure up to her, so don’t even think about dumping his lazy selfish arse, you’d better hang on to him because you’re not super-woman, you’re just a normal woman who would collapse into incompetence and have maladjusted children if you aspired to the saintliness of this impossible icon of virtue.
Screw that. In the beginning, for the first few weeks and months, it’s hard to be a single mother. But if you remember, any mother reading this, how hard was it to be a mother in the first few weeks and months? I’ve had a new baby twice, once when I was living with his father, and once when I wasn’t. I found it equally difficult each time, it was no more difficult without the father around than with him around.
One of the most important things I have done in the decade I’ve been a single mother, is have the time and energy to reflect on mothering. This would not have been possible if I’d had to negotiate parenting with the father of my children still living with me. When you are balancing the needs of the whole family, you have to take into account the views of the other adult; and if those views are Neanderthal or simply not very informed, that means you have to water down your instincts and give house-room to their views, which may be idiotic. If those views are downright abusive and your own childhood was also abusive, that’s a recipe for bad parenting. If you don’t have someone holding you back from investigating how to be a good parent, because that threatens their unconsciously-held convictions, you are free to become a good parent.
And here’s another thing: when you bring up your children by yourself, you develop a sense of self-confidence and pride that feels really great to have. I am actually extremely proud of my achievement: I’ve brought two children into the world who are happy, well-adjusted, decent children. I’ve broken a cycle of violence, alcoholism and dysfunction. I’ve shown both of them, that it’s possible to be happy, fulfilled, strong, loving and have a joyful life when you are single. I hope that my example, means they never settle for a relationship which makes them unhappy, which doesn’t fulfil them, which drains their joy in life. I could never have done that for them, if I had lived with their father. And I’ve done it by myself, with a minimum of support. I’m proud of that, it don’t sound broke to me.
I have had some support; neighbours who help out, who babysit for free occasionally; brothers who take the traditional role of male mentors which were always taken by maternal uncles before the nuclear family became the norm in the West; friends who I know will drop everything at 3AM if there was a genuine emergency, bosses who allowed me the flexibility I needed to function as a mother and a worker at the same time (all workers should be able to do this).
And this is the big secret that the media don’t want women to know: that being a single mother can be bloody great. I don’t want to sound smug or anything, but every morning when I’ve dropped my daughter off at breakfast club and my son and his friend off at school, I feel a surge of joy as I hit the motorway on my way to work. Every day my life is filled with joy and gratitude for the life I have: freedom to be me, freedom to have fun with my children (and without them), freedom to take lovers when I want to, freedom to arrange my social life the way I want to, freedom to live without a man exerting control over me or stunting my development as a human being.
This freedom, is profoundly threatening to patriarchy. I am not being controlled by a man. I am not deferring to a man. I am not servicing a man domestically, sexually, physically, emotionally. I am liberated. That’s why single mothers get such a bad press: because deep down, when society sees women like me bringing up our children by ourselves, doing it well and enjoying it, they feel a sense of panic: where the hell is the man in all this?
So they have to tell other women, that this really isn’t a desirable way of living.
Hence the constant warnings that children of single parents do badly (some of them do, the poor ones, but no worse than the children of other poor parents), the constant propaganda in our music, films, TV programme, popular culture, self-help books, that tell us we should be looking for hetero-normative monogamous relationships, the constant calls for single mothers to be punished with poverty, so that we are disincentivised from choosing it. The constant implications that our lives are somehow lacking, our families are somehow not as real as the families where there is a man at the helm.
When you’ve done it for a decade, you know that your family is happy and content and whole. It’s not broken, it’s not dysfunctional, it’s not lacking in anything that would make it better. I’m not saying that women should reject living with men en masse; some men are very nice and make delightful house-mates; but if women saw lone parenthood as a realistic, viable and actually quite sensible option, patriarchy would fall. Because men would have to behave much, much better in their relationships, to persuade women to continue to live with them.
And that is why single parents are under attack again – because deep down, patriarchy knows that we are on the front line of undermining it. There are too many of us now, to marginalise us as feckless anti-social harpies – everyone knows a lone parent who is just a normal woman and doesn’t fit the stereotypes. There are too many men and women, who have actually grown up in lone parent families and haven’t ended up in prison or on drugs, to keep promoting the lie that women need to live with men to raise children successfully. This is profoundly threatening to men who don’t want to treat women with decency and respect; if women could easily leave a relationship which wasn’t fulfilling their needs without being punished with poverty and social stigma, and all women who lived with abusive men simply left them, some men would never be able to persuade a woman to live with them again. Let’s look at the hierarchy of happiness, which has consistently returned the same results over and over again since happiness has been measured by market researchers:
Married men are the happiest group in society, single women are happier than married women and single men are the least happy group. That tells me that hetero-normative monogamy serves men an awful lot better than it serves women. No wonder they keep pushing it at us. No wonder they don’t want us to know how good it is to be a single mother.