My parents split up when I was four, and little bro was three. In 1988-89. It was fairly amicable, and we have always maintained contact with my dad and would see him in the holidays. No divorced family escapes having some issues, just as no moody teenager escapes having moodswings. But all in all it was a happy story. Splitting up was the best decision for my parents, both of whom had their own issues. My mum met her partner and we moved in with her and, 22 years later, both my parents are in happy, loving and stable relationships.
So that’s my story anyway. The reason I am going more personal than usual is because I want to write about the demonization of single mums and the ‘breakdown’ of families that seem to be on the agenda lately as riots swept the UK.
My family is both a single parent family in that my mum and dad were divorced, but also a two-parent family in that my mum was in a stable and loving relationship throughout my childhood and adulthood (as was my dad). So, I guess, technically, ‘legally’ I was in a single parent family, but in reality, I was in a two-parent family. In some ways perhaps I am not qualified in my personal experience to talk about this. But hey, that’s never stopped me before! There’s also the second ‘prejudice’ as it were in that my mum is in a gay relationship.
Right, I think that covers all you need to know about my background. Personal blogging! Scary stuff!
There are two tabloid ideas of the single mum. The first is the girl who gets pregnant to get a council house and just sees a man as a piece of equipment she can use to get the house. The second is a golddigga who when her hubby leaves her, goes on a mission to wring him dry and get all his cash to help her raise her child. Often both these things are painted as feminism’s fault.
You don’t need me to tell you why these stereotypes are phenomenally stupid.
Parents split up for a multitude of reasons, across a range of classes. A recent report (that I can’t find a link for – damn!) shows that most single mums are in their 30s. Which makes sense really, seeing as the majority of women have children in their mid to late 20s and single parent families make up about a quarter of the families in the UK (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/single-parents-now-head-a-quarter-of-all-british-families-643849.html).
When politicians, when the tabloids, blame single mums for the breakdown of society and ‘feral youth’ they are generally talking about single mums on low incomes. It’s classist and sexist. And they need to stop, think and then probably shut the hell up. Single mums are blamed for everything, when what we should be doing is supporting them. After a break-up, single mums are often left a lot poorer than their male partner. I remember reading in The Whole Woman a report stating that when parents break up, the mother’s income almost always goes down, whilst the father’s goes up. This makes sense. The one with the kids is going to need a house with enough rooms, buy food for herself and her kids, and if she works, maybe go part time or pay for childcare. The father may pay child support but he has more options, more freedom with an income that is now almost solely his. Single mums are often stretched. They may be working part time or full time, they may have to take lower status, lower paid jobs so that they can work more flexible hours to juggle childcare. With the coalition cuts, single mums needing financial support are seeing their benefits disappear, and reports now show that single mums are the worst hit groups by these ridiculous measures (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2011/jun/23/single-mums-biggest-losers-from-benefit-cuts). On top of this, single mums are blamed for everything wrong with today’s young people via stereotypes that don’t reflect reality. The impression by the tabloids and often by politicians is that single mums are feckless; popping out babies all over the place, they don’t really care about their kids, their kids run wild, and then they have more babies they don’t care about in order to get more benefits. Sometimes they don’t put the father’s name on the birth certificate! Gasp! Sometimes they put another man’s name on the birth certificate, even if he isn’t the biological father! Clutch your pearls!
And never mind the fact that their benefits are vanishing. Never mind the fact that they are demonised. Never mind the fact that they STAYED.
Because the other side of the single mums is the dads. Now, I know that a lot of dads stick around. They see their kids and phone them up every day and pay child support and help out and care and love their kids. The good dads. I also know that I will get F4J types shouting at me that the court system benefits mothers, that some mums don’t let the dads see their kids. Yes, most of the time mums get custody of the kids. This is because, in the main, mums are the primary caregivers. Why this happens is a whole other feminist question that starts with gender stereotyping about how we look at family structures; that asks why are dads effectively excluded from the family unit with our stupidly unequal parental leave; why are ‘caring’ and ‘nurturing’ seen as feminine, and what does this mean for men who are fathers…it is generally feminists that are leading the way on this debate despite the fact that we are accused by MRA types of TRYING TO DESTROY FATHERS!! EEK!! I hope soon we will get a more level playing field when it comes to caring responsibilities in families. This is what will cause a change in favouring the mother in custody battles. But until that happens, whilst mothers are seen as the primary caregivers, they will tend to get custody.
If a man is refused access by the courts then I think there must be a good reason for that. The judicial system is designed by men and more often than not, it supports male privilege. The judicial system is not generally great with women’s issues – just look at the way rape is handled by the CJS for proof of that. I find it very hard to believe that if a court refuses to let a man see his kid, they don’t have a reason.
Of course, there are mums who refuse access even when it is legally granted and this can be problematic. That is very difficult.
So anyway, yes, some dads stick around and are lovely. But a lot of dads don’t. A lot of dads just go away. They disappear and they take their love, and care and their money with them. This happens across class, across ethnicity, across the UK, across the world. It happens all the time. And the women who stay, the women who stay to raise their kids; they’re portrayed as bad single mums who don’t care. Who are doing a bad job. Who are just trying to get more benefits. Who are to blame for all social ills. But the invisible man standing next to her, he’s not in the tabloid picture.
One of the most vindictive and nasty cuts that the government has made is its decision to make single parents pay a fee to track down their absent ex-partner to get them to pay towards the upkeep of their child (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12174121). It is nasty because it refuses to recognise that people who need to ask their ex for money to help them raise their children probably don’t have that much cash floating around in the first place. And it is vindictive because it is saying to the single mum that it is her problem to sort out, it is snidely saying that she got herself into this situation and she needs to get herself out. It completely lets the parent who has run off and refused to pay child support off the hook. It puts the blame and the emphasis on the parent who is left holding the baby.
1.5 million children are left without financial support because one of the parents doesn’t pay maintenance. Seeing as the vast majority of single parents are mums, and seeing as the vast majority of these children are born from heterosexual relationships, that’s a lot of dads who have left their kids in the lurch. That’s £4 billion of unpaid maintenance (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12174121).
And we’re blaming single mums for this? The tabloids and the politicians have achieved something remarkable in the way that they manage to blame single mums for the ‘breakdown of society’ and any ‘youth’ issues, whilst also blaming them for disenfranchising fathers; whilst also blaming evil feminists and Labour for diminishing the role of the father. That’s a hell of a lot of things to blame on one group of people. Years ago I spoke to Iain Duncan-Smith on the phone to ask him about the Tory view on gay parenting. He said that that wasn’t an issue, but that there was a conspiracy in the corridors of power to destroy the role of the father. Yet, cutting benefits so that it is cheaper for mums and dads who claim support to actually live apart? Not the Tories fault. Cutting benefits so that mums already struggling to make ends meet are even worse off, thereby making the kids worse off? Not the Tories fault. Creating an idea of marriage as the Holy Grail, even though some families (like my own) are better off with divorce or separation? Not the Tories fault. Blame the single mums! It’s their fault if they haven’t got any money. It’s their fault the dads left. It’s their fault if dads don’t feel part of the family unit. It’s their fault it’s their fault!
So, you can guess that my conclusion is that we should stop blaming single mums. We should make sure lone parents raising kids get the support they need, be that childcare, financial support or, you know, not getting a bashing every day in the press. We need to end the idea that parents breaking up is always a disaster for the children. We need to recognise that not all single mums are poor (although obviously I have mainly focused this post on the demonization of single mums living in relative poverty or financial difficulty, these are not the only single mums) or golddiggas. We should value the great parenting that most single mums do. Raising a child, children, on your own is hard. The way we heap praise on single dads recognises this. Lets recognise that it’s still hard when you’re a mum!
Of course, this post has been pretty harsh on dads who leave. That’s because I think if you bugger off and never have any contact with your kids and contribute nothing to their lives, then you deserve a dose of harshness. But just being angry about it is not going to improve the situation. We need to empower dads too. We need to show them why their kids need them, why it’s important to maintain contact with their kids and why being a dad is great and rewarding. We need to make sure dads are supported. We need to ensure that when the break-up is painful, and awful, and heart wrenching, that dads aren’t then left out of the picture. I fully support the great work done by dads charities like Dads House etc who want to encourage men to be good, loving, involved fathers. I want this to happen. I like dads. I think they should like being dads too.
Single mums as a group aren’t to blame. Dads as a group aren’t to blame. Individuals who do terrible, nasty things in relationships can often be to blame. Cuts to services that help and empower mums and dads, so they are no longer supported, these are to blame. But lets not play the blame game any more. 1.5 million children are not getting support from one of their parents. That’s a lot of children. Blaming people isn’t going to make that change.