Family Day, which takes place this Sunday in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, will honour family life in all its guises, from civil partnerships and the traditional nuclear model to the lone-parent family. Almost 10,000 people attended last year’s free festival.
"Mother's Day and Father's Day don't work for all children," says Karen Kiernan, director of One Family, the support organisation for single parents that is behind the event. "Some parents don't know what to do. The aim of Family Day is to include people living in all kinds of situations. We want people to be proud of their families."
Although it comes with all the hallmarks of a 21st-century urban festival, with music, comedy, yoga and workshops, the event also carries a subtle but serious message: single parents matter.
It wasn’t always so. One Family, founded as Cherish in 1972 by a group of single mothers, was instrumental in the advent of the unmarried mother’s allowance, official recognition of women bringing up children on their own. There were 2,308 applicants in its first year.
In need of help
Today, there are 215,000 single parents, making up one in every four families with children in this country. Pressed by taxes and cuts, an increasing number are turning to charities for help. Kiernan says One Family helped 250 families last year, with 4,000 "service interactions" in all. Children in one-parent families make up 65 per cent of the country's poorest children.
“We’ve seen huge changes since 1972, but a lot of the same problems remain: poverty and stigma,” says Kiernan. “There is still a sort of culture of blaming people who are poor for their own situation, rather than realising the difficulties they face. Poverty is a huge issue for lone parents.
“Housing is a massive issue. We have families going into homeless accommodation because they can’t afford rent increases.
“Single parents are trying to get off welfare and get jobs, but it can take a long time to get the education and experience they need. If you’re trying to pay for childcare and you’re trying to make ends meet, it’s a real catch-22. And that’s without dealing with the emotional issues when parents separate.”
Affordable childcare is a major issue for Catherine Alexander, a single mother whose family comprises two boys, Tristan (7) and Aaron (5), and their two dads. "We wouldn't be traditional, but we are a family," she says. "I found it very tough to begin with, but One Family helped a lot. A lot of lone parents are on the brink. If you're on your own, if you're not getting any maintenance, it's a struggle."
Lone-parent families weren’t helped by the last budget, which removed tax relief on maintenance payments, worth up to €2,000. Budget 2012, meanwhile, made it easier for those working part-time to lose the One-Parent Family Payment.
Then there's the stigma. We have a tax regime that favours married couples and a Constitution that pledges the State to guard "with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded". The policy of defending the marital family implies that unmarried, lone parent-families are bad for children. This assumption runs deep in western political discourse. But is it true?
Research published last November, led by Dr Carmel Hannan of the University of Limerick, found that lone- parent families are just as good for children's development as families with married parents, when balanced for socio- economic factors.
“She was saying that our official outlook endorses the view that social issues will improve if everyone gets married,” says Kiernan. “It’s not that simple. The mother’s educational level really dictates how well children do. So that’s something the Government can look at.”
However slowly, political recognition of this section of society is growing. The forthcoming Children and Family Relationships Bill will greatly increase fathers’ rights, allow civil partners to jointly adopt children and bring clarity to the issue of surrogacy, although a court welfare system is some way off.
One Family is starting a campaign to have the Constitution amended to reflect the changes that have taken place since it was drafted in 1937. Given their achievements to date, you wouldn't bet against them.
Family Day is in Dublin's Iveagh Gardens on Sunday,