Lone parents speak out: 'Mothers have had such an ordeal'

Single parents hopeful shift in opinion evidenced by Yes vote will bring positive change

Emma O’Brien at Spanish Point beach near her home in Milltown Malbay, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Emma O’Brien at Spanish Point beach near her home in Milltown Malbay, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

In an interview 10 years ago, Mary Hanafin, then Fianna Fáil minister for social affairs, announced what would be seen as the start of a departmental war on lone parents.

She wanted the focus back on the traditional family unit.

“The fact we pay a lone parent a benefit until the child is 22 is no incentive for them to either get into steady relationships, to marry, to get into employment, and there is a new strategy needed on lone parents,” she told the Sunday Independent in 2008.

Changes to the One Parent Family Payment, introduced by former minister for social protection Joan Burton in 2012, saw many lone parents’ incomes fall. Many see these as the culmination of a strategy started in 2008.

“We have the responsibility of supporting family. And not just focusing on the more disadvantaged areas...but the family generally. And seeing what we can do to support the family and value the family.”

‘Family values’

Hanafin made her “family values” remarks 25 years after her father, the late Des Hanafin, had campaigned for the insertion of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

A decade on from her remarks, lone parents are hopeful the depth of the attitudinal shift in Irish society evidenced in last weekend’s resounding vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment will bring positive change for families such as theirs.

When she told the school’s principal she was pregnant, six years ago, he asked her, ‘What will your parents say?’

Emma O’Brien (36), who is originally from Dublin and is now living and working in Co Clare, felt stigmatised from the moment she gave birth to her son seven years ago.

“My sister was my birthing partner and though fathers were allowed visit outside normal visiting hours, I was told my sister couldn’t visit me outside the set times. It was the start of being made to feel different, of being isolated, for being a single mother.”

Fiona (42), who did not want to give not her real name as she is a primary school teacher, lives in Dublin. When she told the school’s principal she was pregnant, six years ago, he asked her, ‘What will your parents say?’

Married

Judith O’Connell (50), a lecturer in NUI Galway, was asked by a family member when she announced her pregnancy 11 years ago, “When will you be getting married?”

All are happy they are no longer with their former partners, and none regret motherhood, but say life has been a struggle – emotionally, financially and practically.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty. “If you look at the poverty index, lone parents and children are probably at the biggest risk of poverty in this country,” she said last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty. “If you look at the poverty index, lone parents and children are probably at the biggest risk of poverty in this country,” she said last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Emma, like the others, does not believe people fully realise how difficult it is to be a single parent, “to not have a second person there, to help change the nappies, put a wash on, do the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning, the school run – having no one to talk to”.

We don’t just get up and walk away from security. There’s an attitude of, ‘You’ve made your bed'

Fiona often finds people patronising, adding she does not want pity. “They’re good at saying: ‘It must be very hard work’ but then doing nothing to help. People think that lets them off the hook, when what we need is support and solutions. People are good at giving advice but not at listening to us.”

Judith too speaks of a perception of single mothers as “victims who brought it on ourselves”.

“No mother leaves a partner unless there is a very good reason. We love our children. We don’t just get up and walk away from security. There’s an attitude of, ‘You’ve made your bed’.”

Financial struggles

All describe financial struggles. One, who did not want to be identified, has had to go to St Vincent de Paul for help, adding she “hated having to ask and hated having to be grateful”.

The most recent Economic and Social Research Institute data, from 2016, shows 40 per cent of lone-parent households are “at risk of deprivation”, compared with 12 per cent of two-parent families – they cannot afford such basics as adequate food, clothing, heating or having people over for a meal or drink.

Almost a quarter of lone-parent households are in consistent poverty, compared with 6.4 per cent of two-parent families – subsisting on incomes below 60 per cent of the national median of €237.45 a week.

When you put shame and stigma on us, say we made a ‘lifestyle choice’, it makes us an easy target

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said last year that single parents were a priority group for her. “If you look at the poverty index, lone parents and children are probably at the biggest risk of poverty in this country.”

Campaigners such as Leah Speight, co-founder of Spark (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids), say the legacy of decades of harsh, cruel attitudes to women with crisis pregnancies and to unmarried mothers remains, making them particularly vulnerable to cuts.

‘Shame and stigma’

“When you put shame and stigma on us, say we made a ‘lifestyle choice’, it makes us an easy target. I do think, with the repeal of the Eighth and the size of the vote, it will be much harder for politicians to get away with the kind of language they’ve used about us.”

Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, said she hopes the result and women’s personal stories will encourage a wider respect for women “and the difficult choices we make”.

The policy legacy she hopes for is greater appreciation of, and support for, women and their decisions – whether to continue a crisis pregnancy, to parent alone or with a partner, or to terminate their pregnancy.

Judith is optimistic. “To me, it’s so huge. I cried all last weekend. Women, mothers – we’ve had such an ordeal in this country, but the perception is changing. I can see it. I can see an extra kick in women’s steps.”

* One Family crisis pregnancy and post-abortion counselling is available at counselling.onefamily.ie