Why Ireland is not a welcoming place for single parents

Opinion: Changes in one-parent family payments next month will affect 5,000 families

‘Ireland is not yet welcoming society for single parents – whether single mothers or single fathers.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Ireland is not yet welcoming society for single parents – whether single mothers or single fathers.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jun 27, 2014, 10:01

My now four-year-old son was six months old when a man – educated, urbane, older than I was – shouted at me: “If you didn’t want the child, you should have kept your knickers on.”

I was coming out of, what both I and my son’s father would now agree, had become an impossibly difficult relationship. It was a trying time for us both and we both received support from friends and family. A comment from one among my circle was probably meant as friendly advice: “Unfortunately,” he said – educated, urbane, younger than I was – “you have made things very difficult for yourself.”

Both comments were referring to the fact that I was – am – a single mother. Both stung horrendously and though others, in an effort to balm the hurt, urged that they should not be taken seriously, they were taken as serious expressions of blame, judgment and even hostility to the type of motherhood mine was.

I am, to use another label, an “unmarried mother”. This label is rarely used in today’s discourse, the pejorative connotations – to be “not-married” – do not sit well with our view of ourselves as having moved beyond such value-laden attitudes. After all, even in the case of the classic “nuclear” family, one in three is now headed by a cohabiting couple.

We are, we tell ourselves, an expansive, inclusive society, supportive of the changing reality of family life where marriage is no longer a prerequisite for acceptability. However unpalatable a truth as this may be, Ireland is not yet a welcoming society for single parents – whether single mothers or single fathers. Separated fathers who experience the inverted patriarchy of the family courts or who are denied rent allowance sufficient to allow them provide a home with space enough to have their children stay overnight will testify to systemic prejudice directed at them.

Idealisation of motherhood

Given the teachings that informed the birth and evolution of the State, teachings that still have a profound influence on our idealisation of motherhood, our society reserves a particularly special disdain for single mothers. In this newspaper in 2005, columnist Kevin Myers writing about “mothers of bastards” said: “from such warped timber true masts are seldom hewn”. The article may have outraged public opinion but there is little doubt he expressed a view held well beyond Dublin’s Fleet Street, albeit a view few would dare express publicly.

More recently, Co Kerry priest Fr Sean Sheehy caused offence when he was among many who gave comfort to convicted sex-offender Danny Foley in December 2009. Foley had sexually assaulted a woman in 2008. Fr Sheehy, who had acted as a character witness, had also been among up to 50 who trooped up to Foley in the court after his conviction to support him and shake his hand. Fr Sheehy later defended his actions, saying he had no regrets and by way of explanation said: “She’s the mother of a young child as well and, you know, that in itself doesn’t look good.” Again his comments were widely criticised, but the numbers who joined him in his actions in the Tralee courtroom give lie to any argument that his sentiments were his own only.

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