I write this on Halloween. A day for ghosts and ghouls and sticky fingered children. For me though, Halloween has, circumstantially, become a day in which key life events have occurred for me which have marked important change. If I was to be really dramatic (what, me?!) you could say Halloween is a day in which I have been able to lay certain demons to rest. Yup…dramatic. That said, the reason I write this post is less dramatic and more symbolic because in November I reach the ten year mark since becoming a single parent and with the pending approach of this anniversary it has got me thinking about my life’s journey over the past decade.
That was my overarching emotion this time a decade ago. Everywhere I looked I saw loss, change, uncertainty, unknowns, instability and stress. Whilst I won’t lament on the personal circumstances of that time, it is crucial to acknowledge my starting point when considering what has changed for me. Truth was, I was so scared. I was leaving a broken relationship that carried its own emotional turmoil which – at some point – I knew I would need to process, yet urgency demanded I prioritse the practical issues the circumstances had created. In actuality, I have very few memories of the months spent living with my daughter’s father after our relationship had dissolved but I do recall plastering on jazz hands and full-beam smiles to convince my one year old that everything was normal despite it being far from so. I dare say that my selective amnesia was the body’s defence mechanism kicking in to the immense stress I felt during that period and I genuinely don’t think I could ever find adequate enough words to describe that time (and that is me not actually being dramatic for once). Whilst the world kept turning and I kept showing up in parenthood and at the day job, I was also making plans to simultaneously close one chapter and initiate another which I found emotionally exhausting, to say the least. I sought rented accommodation without the security of knowing what I could afford, whether my child’s other parent would financially or practically support our child (the fact that is even a contemplation infers the significant shift in parental responsibility I was making), and what my future held. It was a type of frenetic adrenaline rollercoaster ride no-one would voluntarily queue for at Chessington.
The Early Days
Those days were tough. Single parenting is not much different than joint parenting in many aspects (eat, sleep, play, love the bones of them, drink wine, repeat) but it carries with it huge practical, logistical and financial implications. Kanye once pointed out in his delightful little number, ‘Gold Digger‘: “Cause when she leaves yo’ass, she gon’ leave with half” which was anything but the case for me, and no doubt for many other people who are holding the baby. My darkest moment prior to the separation, without fail, was a day I spent looking at rental properties within my budget which were all so horrific I cried huge swathes of blubbery tears in the car journey between properties. One property I refused to enter from the front step, it was that bad. I remember feeling pretty hopeless that day and like I was staring into a financial void I was about to get lost in. For someone who craves stability and predictability I acutely remember the overwhelming feeling of loss over control over my own circumstances.
Specifically, this meant that whilst I still had choices my range of choices were becoming narrowed down, or caught in a dependency chain around which I seemed to hold little control. The job I had at the time was school hours which meant less childcare costs and more time with my baby but it paid so little that I needed to apply for benefits to survive once I became a single parent. I had the professional experience to return to the job I had before having my daughter which paid a lot more, but I would then be stumped trying to find and pay for out-of-hours child care as the hours were anti-social. So, in theory, whilst I could still work, my choices were significantly narrowed which had a domino effect on my finances and where I could afford to live etc. etc. It felt like one huge vicious circle. And I was angry, too. I was a first time mum to a one year old; I just wanted to enjoy her, and not stress about her becoming a statistic, or worrying about our security.
I eventually found a suitable property that I turned into a lovely little home for me and my baby girl but finances dictated it was in a shitty area. Whilst I could close my door to it and we could merrily live our lives in home comfort, whenever we stepped outside the lack of opportunity in the area was evident through the crime rate, the poverty, unemployment and inadequate schooling and child care provision. The latter affected me greatly and I battled to get my daughter into a good school across town. Whilst I managed this it took 3 years for this to happen and even then it was only down to luck that I heard a school place had come available and got in there first. What I rapidly started to realise was that no matter how much I carefully managed our finances and our time so that my daughter had the best of everything I could afford, there were structural disadvantages that my daughter would face if our status quo remained. This was a bitter pill to swallow for me as this was something I felt I had limited influence over so I applied to go back to university to retrain as I felt this would improve our options. Getting a place on the course made me feel hopeful for a future with better prospects but, even so, I am mindful that it was only thanks to a bursary (due to a deficit of people in the related profession I was training for) that meant university was a viable option. If I had to pay tuition fees, I wouldn’t have been able to afford this option. That sucks, as when you are a single parent, unless you earn a particular amount it certainly does not ‘pay to work’ as the government would so flippantly suggest.
Being a student again was no small feat. It was a further jump into the unknown, both financially and practically, and it meant many a late night studying and screeching up at the childminder’s door after a day on placement. But it also allowed for hope. I knew at the end of it I would be able to significantly increase my income through progression in my chosen career. But it also came with costs. Whilst uni life afforded me longer stretches of time at home with my girl due to the long holidays (and night times are for studying right?) when I started in my career it also meant long working days and less time with her. Over the years I have swung like a pendulum between mum guilt at time away from my child to feeling great pride at knowing my daughter is growing up with a female role model that works hard and digs deep to achieve her goals. The key, for me, was to learn to live with those feelings and accept them no matter how hard it was at times, as I knew the alternative was non-negotiable for us. That said, some days I live with these feelings more successfully than others. That’s why, when I graduated my Masters on Halloween 2013 (with a bloody distinction no less!!) I allowed myself to celebrate not just in the achievement but also in the security of knowing I had taken a step forward, away from the set of circumstances that had filled me with fear 3 years earlier. It was a special feeling having my daughter – no longer a baby – accompany me to my graduation and I cherish the memories of that day. I also feel great pride when I look back at her and how well she adapted to the new changes (particularly one that – rather bizarrely – occurred on Halloween 2011 and which had huge ramifications but is not something to be shared here).
Whilst I was thankful to no longer spend my nights working on essays until the early hours, being a working single mum was/is no small feat either! It is a juggle like no other and the logistics of it have left me feeling overwhelmed at times. The nature of my job often meant leaving at 5pm on the dot was not always feasible or practical and with no other adult to readily collect my child it would always result in panicked phone calls to friends to see if anyone could help out. The last few years have gone in a blur and I imagine that is due to the sheer amount of balls that working single parents juggle. But despite having a secure job I still could not afford to leave the area where we lived. Even when I was in a position to finally buy a house, the only house I could afford was – I kid you not – only a few doors up from my rented home. Jesus bloody wept; it felt like I couldn’t escape that shitty street for love nor money.
I don’t for one minute seek to diminish the privilege I felt at being in a position to buy a home and the security of living in a mortgage property was certainly not lost on me. This became clearly apparent when my landlord wanted to let her house – my rented home – to her niece, and served me with an eviction notice. When I explained I would be buying a property but that I would not be able to complete for a few months yet, she refused to negotiate leaving me a gap of three months waiting to complete on the purchase of my property without anywhere to live. It is this type of lack of security that is often a further obstacle single parents have to face and I genuinely count my lucky stars that I am out of it but that does not stop me from feeling frustrated that many of my fellow single parents may not have had some of the opportunity I have had. It’s why I detest the term ‘hard work pays off’ with an absolute passion. I find it so smug and privileged as hard work can only ever take you so far. And the less privileged you are the bigger the deficit between the hard work and the desired goal, with single parents frequently feeling the gaping size of that deficit. In my situation, this meant that even though I was fortunate to be able to buy a house, I was still trapped in the same shitty area whereas a married couple with similar salaries to me would most likely have increased options. For other single parents, the gap means potentially never getting on the property ladder in the first place. That’s what I struggle with and why I dislike the negative view of single parents (read ‘mother’ as we are the ones generally hit by the stereotype). I don’t know anyone with more fire in her belly than a single mother fighting to give her child the best in life and yet it is so desperately difficult to break the cycle that can, at times, feel suffocating.
The Next Step
So, off we trotted to the house up the road on move in day. I found myself irked that had I been able to move directly from one home to the next I could have carried my bloody furniture up the road myself, instead I had to send my worldly possessions on a three month (rather costly) holiday in storage away from my road only to then pay for it to be transported back for move in day. Again, I was able to make our house into a lovely little home but it wasn’t enough to guard against the societal issues at my door. My next door neighbours at the time took great pleasure in reminding me of this which I won’t go into but the Police and Children’s Services were regular visitors next door and I hated my daughter hearing someone threaten to stab someone “you fxxking cxxt” on the regs. I once heard someone describe my situation (being a single parent with one child) as similar to their situation as a married parent with two children. Now I know I’ve mentioned that before but it just irks me as those two situations will just never be comparative. Single parenting is in a context of its own with full responsibility and one set of hands, particularly for those single parents who assume financial responsibility for their child. No amount of ‘hard work’ can put you in the same boat as a two-parent family or indeed a non-resident single parent, not when you’ve only got one oar and you need both hands to hold the baby.
We live in a capitalist society where the more money you have, the more money you make. But the inverse means the more obstacles you have, the more challenges come your way. Single parents are a disadvantaged group and yet almost 1 in 4 families of dependent children are headed by a single parent. That’s a whole lot of people at a disadvantage and who are scurrying around trying to keep up with the Jones’. I have – and still do – compare myself to other families and berate myself for coming up short. I always feel ten steps behind other people and sometimes carry shame for it too. I don’t really know why as I have a nice home, a good job, and I’m raising a kick-arse little female but I can’t help but feel lacking when around other parents who co-habit. A bit like the poor relation really and I am truly my own harshest critic. The truth be told, I need to learn to separate out success from worthiness as sometimes it really is as simple as some people just having better options in the first place; that’s it. I know I have made the best of the options that I had and I should be proud of that. I am proud of that.
I took this photo on Halloween 2019. The day we moved out of that god-damn road and across town (see that sunset?! It was pretty symbolic of my relief, ha!). The moving process was stressful as hell (when isn’t it?!) as I needed to move to a catchment area which had a good secondary school and the deadline for the application was….yup….Halloween. I really do things by the wire sometimes, lol. I remember taking this picture and feeling such relief that we were off. For so very long, I had felt out of control. When you have little financial security a curve ball can decimate you. I acutely remember the panic I would feel if my lap top died before submitting an essay, or my car broke and needed costly repairs (that happened a lot). Thankfully, I had caring family that could bail me out at times but that doesn’t do much for the ego either and mainly just contributed to the poor relation complex. I was diagnosed with anxiety a while ago and I know that I seek to control things to avoid this feeling of overwhelm. One way I do this is by insuring the eff out of everything now. I pay a pension; if I hire a car, I pay the added insurance premium; and I’ve had life and critical illness insurance for years (even at a point when I really could not afford it). The thing is when you’ve felt like everything is closing in on you, that fear remains so I guess part of taking back my autonomy has meant purchasing whatever stability I possibly can (if you know, you know).
Ten years on my daughter still needs parenting, my day job keeps me busy busy busy, and my house is mid renovation (and has been for a year, bloody Covid). I have not been in a great place this year with my mental health and I genuinely believe my desire to move away from the fear and stress that gripped me ten years ago just kept me too tightly coiled for too long. This is something I am trying to address but, it’s a journey, right? And, of course this journey is being currently shaped by Covid 19! So, here I sit on Halloween 2020 where it has just been announced that England is going into a further national lockdown. And yup, that creates further difficulties for single parent families from the financial impact of job losses, furlough or maintenance payments not being made, to logistical/practical issues around people stock piling, juggling work and potential home schooling (it’s gonna happen, right?) and, of course, the stress of what happens if the parent does get the virus (I’m fairly confident most single parents have more scruples than Dominic Cummings and wouldn’t hot foot it to Mummy and Daddy in Cumbria).
One lady is who doing good things for single parents right now is Ella Davis who blogs under the handle of Ellamental Mama. She is working hard to campaign for protected rights for single parents and was instrumental in the UK Government’s decision to implement support bubbles. If you get a chance, please do offer the campaign some support. Being a single parent has been tough at times, is tough at times. It’s time society shrugs off the negative view of this group when the majority are working their backsides off within a system that is frequently stacked against us. It shouldn’t have to be this hard and I hope that things change. I am fairly confident things will change and it will be testament to those of us out there challenging the narrative. So here’s to the next decade. I wonder what symbolic things will happen on the Halloweens to come…(winning the lottery and a shag wouldn’t go amiss!)
March on sisters!