The words “single parent” often strike an instant image into your mind. What do you see? A mum with lot’s of kids living off of social security contributions? A dad who has lost his wife to illness and is just holding it all together? Do you see an image of pity? Do you feel love and compassion? Or, if you’re honest, do you feel scornful and judgemental?
I remember growing up as the youngest daughter of a 2.4, 1980’s, small C conservative family and thinking I had it all. Yes, my dad worked away all the time, and yes my mum was so ill with depression that she couldn’t even get out of her bed every day; but they were together right? So yes, I had it all. I often looked at the kids in my class who had to go to their dads every second Sunday with real pity in my heart; “look at that sad soul, bet they wished they could lie in their own bed watching Glen Michael’s Cartoon Cavalcade with their mum and dad downstairs making breakfast”. Now, I’m not sure where this idea came from because I was never allowed to stay in my bed on a Sunday, and rarely was my mother able to rise from her poor mental health to make me some sort of Walton’s style breakfast; but there you have it, even at primary age I was judging the children and parents from lone parent families.
Fast forward to my mid-twenties and picture a young mum with a five year old, a two year old, a Louis Vuitton handbag and no money; sitting in a housing office in Wishaw desperately seeking somewhere to live. Just a home of my own to raise my children. There were no houses, well none where I thought I should be living, but thankfully I was given housing benefit and sold enough of what I had to secure myself a private tenancy in a two bedroom ex-council flat. You should have seen this flat, it was all mustard kitchens, mint green bathrooms and swirly carpets; a far cry from my four bed semi and Audi supporting driveway. I had, overnight, become a single mum living in a scheme. That’s how quickly it happened, and I was still judging, judging myself, judging my life and judging my future.
I had two choices in that period I could become the label and just lay down to it “single mum, no work, no life” or I could fight. I could beg to work on TV shows for whatever they paid, I could borrow enough money from my dad to start an online company which would let me work and parent, I could accept the small amounts of benefits I was owed which would often stop us from starving till the end of the month. I could survive. I could ignore the millions of voices giving me “sound advice” (which is more often than not from someone who lives in a two income house and who’s never had to sell said “Louis Vuitton” handbag on ebay). I could make being a single mum fabulous.
Don’t get me wrong there are moments when its far from fabulous; a lot of lone parents hear this phrase from coupled up friends “seriously though, at least you get a break at the weekend”. That’s right because I don’t spend the weekends catching up with the millions of chores which society sees as “mans work”, cleaning the car, changing all the broken light bulbs and sorting the mountains of bills. I also don’t spend my weekends missing my children and the chatter that comes from “normal” family life….. Think about that. People tend to forget that when you’re a lone parent, and maybe even a parent with a spouse who is working or living away from home, you never get a break. I’ll give you an example, last night child two had a fever, she was up all night and there was no one to hand the reigns to. I had no one to say “could you run and get her some water to take these paracetamols with”, no, I had to run gazelle-like down two flights of stairs while shouting “there there beautiful girl, I’ll be back in two seconds” while simultaneously trying not to break my neck in the jet black night. I get that not all partners are useful in these situations, but often even knowing there is another grown up gazelle-like runner in your home, well it just helps. I got up this morning, I washed my face, I pulled on some very strange clothes and I got my ass to work. Why? Because not only am I the carer, but I am the sole provider and I blooming love it.
I could lament about being a single mammy for hours, I’ve not even got on to the subject of “finding love”. If you have children you will never hear a more loaded question than “Who do you live with?”. This is a grownups way of asking if you have more baggage than terminal one at Heathrow. Oh, and if you do find someone who (often by the way thinks they’re doing you a huge favour taking on your children) would like to date you, sorting your diary to suit work, life, children and romance, would make you feel like you’re the Private Secretary to Nicola Sturgeon…. “I can fit you in for two hours after dancing on the Second of March?”
Yes being a lone parent isn’t always fun and games but guess what? I’m managing not to mess up my children completely! Mad isn’t it? A woman who gets tax credits and a discount on her council tax, with two slightly eccentric but remarkably brilliant human beings, who are contributing to society before they are even old enough to move out (which they better had do because I don’t plan on running gazelle-like after them forever). It’s maybe not the way society, or my mind, thought I would raise a family but I live with a joy that I could never have obtained if I hadn’t experienced parenting on my own. I have sense of “I did that, me, look at me!”
So how did I do it? How did I survive? Yes, there is an internal feminist warrior in me, but the answer was support. I had brilliant parents, a loving sister and fantastic friends. People who saw my struggles but who took a load off; and sometimes kicked me up the bahookie and out of my self pity. There were times when my health, the kids health and the world around me would have led me to believe that giving up would be easier; that if I became invisible and believed that I , as a single parent, should achieve nothing then that would have become my reality. Goodness, aren’t I glad that wasn’t the road I travelled. When I was Councillor I was asked over and over and over, why are you into politics? Seriously? Why? The answer is simple, because I know what its like to almost sink and to feel like you are being swept up in a sea of cliches. Benefits. Poverty. Ill health. Loneliness. Fear. I didn’t, I was sent a a life raft of hope in the form of support. Now it’s my time to support others.
If you’re judging single parents because of the help they receive, be it from family or the DSS then remember my words, in ONE night it happened to me. As quickly as I was married to a financier, I was alone. If, you think you could do it better, or you would have made different choices, then that’s great you must have all your shit together; I’ve not met anyone like that as yet, but if that’s you well done. As for us single parents, we’re just like everyone else who’s trying to raise a nice rounded human being, we are only doing our best. If you see a single mammy struggling financially, emotionally or physically; instead of opening your judging mind, soften your heart and throw them a lifebelt. Could your act of kindness change one person, and in turn change the world entire? Parents come in all “shapes and sizes”. Young mums, grannies, aunties, daddies, grampas and more; with the right support every one can raise a child who can change the world.
Finally I would like to dedicate this blog to all the single mammys and daddies who have survived, and especially to my little warrior Kelly who is the epitome of fierce. Parents who get up and play two parts in the same play. Who juggle work, life and love while often giving so much of them self that their tank is left empty. Love yourself more, judge yourself less. To all the singletons who have gone on dates with puke down their jacket shoulders and the mobile on vibrate in case of a toddler emergency, I salute you, you haven’t given up on love and love will never give up on you.
I’m signing off because my two are at their dads and I’m going to finish the housework and have a very deserved night of uninterrupted sleep!