The Single Files: what family means to singletons

Dermot O'Donovan and his son Conor at their home in Clonmel. Photograph: John D Kelly.

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.

Kelly recalls being asked some years ago why he never married. “I said, ‘Sure, who would have me with two children?’ The two children were my mam and dad.”

As a lone carer, he says: “It’s very isolating. I lost my friends, my old workmates. I also lost my social skills.” He says he was fearful at the time of his father’s death that he’d spend the rest of his life alone, but then he and his sister moved in together with her children. Of this extended family, he says, “it’s essential for me”. One of his nieces is now acting as his carer.

Kelly’s experience highlights the vulnerability of some single people. He is now trying to reach out to men in a similar situation in Cork through the Carers Association. “I phone one man every night, and another a couple of days a week. I have a small number of quality friends who were there for me when I was caring,” he says.

Loneliness risk

Extended family often play a critical role in helping vulnerable older people, according to the charity Alone.

Citing one recent example, chief executive Sean Moynihan says: “I was just heading out the door when the phone rang, and this girl asked, how could she get meals-on-wheels for a distant uncle? Then the story started to unfold, and it turned out he had no electricity and no water.”

The World Health Organisation has rated loneliness as a higher risk to physical and mental health than smoking. And, while Moynihan says some older people will say they prefer to be alone, there is a danger “as people start to disengage, it impacts more and more on their physical and mental health.

“Right now, you might have the arrogance of good health and youth. But when health and youth start to disappear it’s all very different.”

Some of the same concerns about social isolation are shared by lone parents, of which Ireland has a relatively high number by European standards. In 2009, Ireland had the third-highest rate of single motherhood in Europe, after Estonia and the UK.

Single women with children comprised 5.9 per cent of households here, compared to a European average of 3.7 per cent, Eurostat figures show.

A separate study found Ireland had the joint-highest rate of children living with a lone parent. About 23 per cent of children in Ireland and Latvia were raised by single parents in 2008, compared to an EU average of 14 per cent.

Worryingly, from a mental-health perspective, single mothers reported having the highest levels of loneliness, in a 2011 study on attitudes to family formation in Ireland that was commissioned by the Family Support Agency. Single mothers also had the lowest life satisfaction ratings in the survey. The report’s author TCD academic Dr Margret Fine-Davis says a major contributory factor is lack of child care. She did a subsequent study with Fás and discovered women were stopped from bringing their children to training centres “which is a really silly social-policy blockage”.

The lack of affordable child care also makes employment an unrealistic prospect for many single parents, leaving them “isolated in their homes, without any adult companionship”.

Single people with no children would also benefit from improved childcare in the State, she points out. A concern among “high socio-economic status women is that if they start a family they are going to end up working part-time; they realise they are going to have to make career choices. There is very little public childcare and flexible working is more available to women than men.”

Fine-Davis says social policies need to be developed that support families and single people. “The Government needs to take on board that we do have more single people and that is manifesting itself in more social isolation. This is a social issue that we need to deal with.”

The single father 'To meet someone you need money and if you spend money, the child will lose out'

When Dermot O’Donovan’s partner died suddenly two years ago he was thrust into the role of single parent.

He had been working as a lorry driver but found the cost of commuting more than 30 miles each day to his workplace, combined with paying for childcare, as no longer financially viable.

“I didn’t want to go on the dole but I couldn’t afford to go to work.”

He has since sold his car, and is dependent on welfare payments of €217.80 a week. Some €32 goes in rent, €13 on electricity, €15 on gas, €6 on bins, and at least €80 on food. He continues to list the outgoings, noting one week recently he had only 10c left after paying all his bills.

“I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t have a TV because that’d be €30 a week. We’ve nothing to do at night. My young fella has an Xbox alright and he plays the old games he got when his mother was alive.

“I’ve no social life,” he adds. “My son said to me recently, ‘I want you to get a girlfriend’. I nearly fell down to the ground when I heard that.”

While he was touched by his eight-year-old’s concern, he felt conflicted. “To meet someone you need money and if you spend money in the pub, the child will lose out, and I don’t want to do that to him.”

While O’Donovan says he doesn’t feel ostracised, he has little contact with other parents. “They salute you when they collect their kids from school and are gone; everyone has their own things to do.”

O’Donovan (39), who is from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, says he has been told that his lone parent’s allowance will soon be withdrawn and he will be put on jobseekers’ allowance instead. This means “if a job comes up and if I don’t take it I get cut off”. But, he asks, who will look after his son?

“One day I got work as a coach driver, I signed off the day. I got a baby-sitter, I borrowed a car and put petrol in the car. I got paid €80.”

He then gave that money to the local authority to offset his rent allowance. “They took the €80 from my rent. So I done the day for nothing.”

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has acknowledged such welfare rules have created potential poverty traps, and her department is reviewing the payment system with the Department of the Environment.

For O’Donovan, change can’t come soon enough. “I feel it’s no wonder some men run away from their responsibilities because it’s hardship looking after a child on your own, and there is no real backup there.”

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