I see you, single parents. I see your work, your pain – and your joy

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Since having my son, I have often thought about single parents. “I don’t know how you handle it” is a common refrain that you hear from coupled parents, but I don’t mean to patronize any of you. You cope because you have to, because you love your child or children and they need you. I understand that. I saw my mother do it, and have single parents in my extended family and friendship groups.

What I’ve been trying to think of is more physical than that. You see, my back hurts. It hurts to lift the baby, and to walk him up and down every night while I sing Irish folk songs to him, and I think from the fact that while I sleep I unconsciously turn my head towards him so that I can hear better his fluttering breath. But when my back hurts too much, I give the child to my husband, and he starts walking him up and down, and I will go into another room, and sometimes pour a glass of wine.

It’s the absence of that little moment of respite that sticks with me. The grueling, physical strain of caring for a child alone, even when it hurts, even when your leg seems to ache.

We don’t give single parents much credit. In Britain, the government has actively punished them, punishing them and their children financially in ways both lustful and heartless. Reading accounts of how single mothers are struggling in the cost of living crisis brought me to tears last month. It seems painfully unfair to me that single mothers, in addition to facing all the physical, emotional and financial pressures that come from caring for children alone, continue to be heavily stigmatized in ways that are both classist and misogynistic, supposed to be ” young, unemployed, feckless, uneducated, hyperfertile” despite the data showing otherwise.

Then there is the more subtle social exclusion, as couples tend to only socialize with their own. I think (hope?) that my generation is less prone to this particular form of boring, insecure ostracism, as different lifestyles become more common and, in particular, many more women actively choose single motherhood. But the notion of the nuclear family still has a terrible influence.

Sophie Heawood wrote beautifully, in this paper, about what it feels like to live outside that narrative, how she replaced talking with ‘nodding’: ‘You’re going to nod when the nursery sends your child home with a Happy Father’s Day card she’s made to copy her name to. You’ll be using The Nod when other moms say they know exactly what it’s like to be a single parent because their handsome husband works overseas for up to two weeks at a time.”

Heawood’s memoir, The Hungover Games, is a tender and funny account of single parenthood (she calls smug coupled-up parents “Hallouminati”) in what is becoming a burgeoning genre whose time in the sun is long overdue. It follows Emily Morris’ brilliant My Shitty Twenties, about the author’s experience of an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 22. Séamas O’Reilly’s funny and heartbreaking Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? tells about the experience of being one of 11 siblings raised by a widowed single father.

In poetry, Warsan Shire’s work sheds light on the experience of both co-parenting your siblings and raising yourself. Comedy is also beginning to reflect and satirize the realities of single parenthood, with Katherine Ryan’s standup and series The Duchess, and Diane Morgan’s character in Motherland serving as important correctives; while Anna Härmälä’s cartoons are enlightening and laugh-out-loud funny. But we still need more, and more diverse, portrayals.

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The relationship between a child and their single parent can be very special, and this is something we rarely see. I have spoken to other adult children of single parents and they often reflect on the intimacy and closeness they feel childhood has given them. Seeing your parent as a flawed and sometimes vulnerable adult can be its own burden, as can the codependency of such a relationship. But at the same time, it can give you a far more nuanced understanding of your parent and their inner emotional life. I’ve hardly seen this particular trait depicted anywhere, I guess because it strikes so hard against the dominant notion that a child is always better off with two parents at home, and that children of single parents are deprived by default. Being raised by a single parent can be a joy and a privilege.

It is true that half of single parents live in relative poverty, and this year will see more and more single parents struggling to keep their children warm and fed. It is important to make it visible and push for better state support for single parents. But it is also crucial to tell single parents that we see them, we support them and recognize the work they do every day.

What works
My dad came to visit and gave me some crucial downtime by taking the boy out in his pram, or “walking the songlines” as he calls it, in homage to Bruce Chatwin’s book on Indigenous Australian song and its links to nomadic travel . He says babies are most relaxed when they are in perpetual motion, and it seems to work. I need to get out more.

What is not
However, cars don’t seem to have the same effect. We’ve spent another taxi ride with the boy screaming in his car seat, my nerves shot to shreds as we were sat down on the pavement, both crying. I assumed my customer rating would be through the floor at this point, but I’ve been touched and humbled by how kind taxi drivers have been to me, and how often they’ve said, “Don’t worry, I have kids myself. .” In these low moments, small acts of kindness really help.

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