Since having my son, I have thought often about single-parent families. “I don’t know how you cope” is a common refrain that you hear from coupled-up parents, but I’m not about to patronise 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 about is more physical than that. You see, my back hurts. It hurts from lifting the baby, and from walking him up and down every night while singing him maudlin Irish folk songs and, I think, from the fact that as I’m sleeping I unconsciously twist my head towards him, so I can better hear his fluttering breaths. But when my back hurts too much, I pass the baby 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 small moment of respite that sticks with me. The grinding, physical toll of caring for a child alone, even when it hurts, even when your bones seem to ache.
We don’t give single parents much credit. In the UK, the government has actively punished them, penalising them and their children financially in ways both craven and heartless. Reading accounts of how single mothers are struggling in the cost of living crisis brought me to tears last month. It seems to me painfully unfair that, as well as facing all the physical, emotional and financial pressures that come from looking after children alone, single mothers continue to be heavily stigmatised in ways that are both classist and misogynist, assumed to be “young, unemployed, feckless, uneducated, hyper-fertile” despite the data showing otherwise.
Then there’s the more subtle social exclusion, as couples tend to only socialise with their own. I think (hope?) that my generation is less prone to this particular form of tedious, insecure ostracism, as different lifestyles become more common and many more women especially are actively choosing single motherhood. But the notion of the nuclear family still holds an awful lot of sway.
Sophie Heawood wrote beautifully, in this paper, about how it feels to live outside that narrative, how she replaced speaking with “the nod”: “You will do The Nod when the nursery sends your kid home with a Happy Father’s Day card that she’s been made to copy her name on to. You will employ The Nod when other mums say they know exactly what it’s like being a single parent because their lovely husband works abroad 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 “the Hallouminati”) in what is becoming a burgeoning genre that is long overdue its time in the sun. It follows Emily Morris’s brilliant My Shitty Twenties, about the author’s experience of an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 22. Séamas O’Reilly’s hilarious and heartbreaking Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? recounts 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 coparenting your siblings and raising yourself. Comedy, too, is beginning to reflect and satirise the realities of single parenting, with Katherine Ryan’s standup and series The Duchess, and Diane Morgan’s character in Motherland acting as important correctives; while Anna Härmälä’s cartoons are enlightening and laugh-out-loud funny. But we still need more, and more diverse, depictions.
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 their 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 have hardly seen this specialness depicted anywhere, I suppose because it kicks so hard against the dominant notion that a child is always better off with two parents at home, and that the children of single parents are deprived by default. To be raised by a lone parent can be a joy and a privilege.
It is true that half of single-parent families live in relative poverty, and this year is going to see more and more single parents struggling to keep their children warm and fed. It is important to highlight that and push for better government support for single parents. But it is also crucial to say to single parents that we see them, we support them and we recognise the work they do every day.
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 tribute to Bruce Chatwin’s book on Indigenous Australian song and its connections to nomadic travel. He says that babies are most relaxed when in perpetual movement, and it does seem to be working. I must get out more.
Cars, however, don’t seem to have the same effect. We’ve spent yet another taxi ride with the boy screaming in his car seat, my nerves shot to shreds as we are deposited on the pavement, both of us in tears. I assumed that my customer rating would be through the floor by this point, but I’ve been touched and humbled by how kind cab drivers have been to me, and how often they have said: “Don’t worry, I have children myself.” In these low moments, small kindnesses really help.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author