The Single Files: what family means to singletons
Dermot O'Donovan and his son Conor at their home in Clonmel. Photograph: John D Kelly.
Many single people are also lone parents or can end up caring for their families by default, writes JOE HUMPHREYS
A certain “smug married” person’s myth about single people is that the singleton doesn’t value family, or is too selfish to build a life with others; that’s why they’re single. But almost everyone has a family, or at least starts out with one. And research shows that the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle, in which family plays no role whatsoever, is very much a minority pursuit.
“Post-modern theories would say that we’re not constrained by our families. You are free to choose your friends and supposedly these have become more important than family,” says Carmel Hannan of the Department of Sociology at University of Limerick.
“But it comes up over and over again in studies, when you ask people who is really important in their lives, who they contact and who they go to for support: they talk about sisters, aunts, uncles; they talk about family all the time.”
But what does family mean to single people? A Scottish research paper charmingly titled The Intimate Relationships of Contemporary Spinsters details a variety of arrangements single people engage in, some of which might be depicted as alternatives to marriage. Interviewees spoke of having “forever-friends” or platonic partners, of playing the role of significant aunt, and of various other relationships “encompassing values and practices of duty and care”. Thus, the paper argues, the idea of single women as “strident individualists” is very far from the truth.
NUI Galway sociologist Dr Anne Byrne, who cites the research in support of her own qualitative studies, says that as a rule “single people move away from all relationships that diminish their singleness. This could be family but also friends who are not inviting them to events because they’re not partnered.”
Predictably enough, single people rate friendship highly but Byrne says “we were quite surprised at how single people really minded their friendships. They were really careful not to overburden these relationships.” Moreover, single people “wanted to keep a strong relationship with their family despite the fact that there can be interpersonal expectations to marry”, and accompanying tensions.
While no two families are the same, a single person’s closest relations can make his or her life somewhat uncomfortable. The bachelor or spinster whose siblings are all married can end up as the family curiosity, whose private life is fair game for intimate scrutiny. Or they can be portrayed as the “unencumbered” family member who is put upon to look after an elderly relation.
“A lot of female carers would be the last girl in the family, who would automatically take over the role, and as a result would never marry themselves,” says Catherine Cox of the Carers Association. The last census showed about 40 per cent of the State’s 187,000 carers were single, separated or widowed. Of the 55,000 single carers, 56 per cent were women and 44 per cent men.
Next time someone suggests single people are selfish, think of Pat Kelly. “From the time I was 12, I looked after mam,” says the Corkman, who turns 70 on St Patrick’s Day. “Being the eldest, I felt responsible for my family.”
As a young man, he worked in factory jobs and as a driver, but 30 years ago he gave it all up to look after his parents full time. For a while, he says, “mam was in a wheelchair and dad was in the zimmer frame”. They died in 1998 and 2009 respectively.