Sunday, 5 February 2012

Guest post: Being a single mother today ~ Gappy Tales

I've got an absolutely cracking guest post for you today - one of my favourite bloggers, Gappy Tales, has very kindly donated this thought-provoking post about being a single parent.  I remember reading the original post on her blog and agreeing with every single word.

If you haven't read Gappy's blog then you should hot foot it straight offer there (after you've read this of course!). She writes beautifully, you won't be disappointed.

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I am really pleased to have been asked to write a guest post for notSupermum. As fellow single parents and anonymous bloggers, I feel that she and I share a natural affinity. I will confess now though that I have cheated slightly. The post you're about to read is one that I actually wrote and published on my own blog in April 2010, and as such the personal circumstances that it describes are a little out of date. I still stand strongly behind the message though - perhaps now more than ever - so apart from a few revisions and tweaks, this is still my take on what it means to be a single mother today:

In spite of the title of my blog I would always have said that being a single mother specifically was not actually a huge part of my identity. About two years ago however, I was commenting on another blogger's post 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 today's 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 prioritised 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 women's 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 temporary paid work at Women's 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 Cameron's 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 as much money, plus requires that you be actively looking for work in order to qualify, 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 women's 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 children's 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.