Why Ireland is not a welcoming place for single parents

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


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.

Commentary abounds of the harsh treatment of unmarried mothers in the Ireland of the first half of the 20th century, of the punitive manner in which the State/church nexus sought to govern, control and punish those women who “fell” pregnant apparently all of their own doing. The regime brutally achieved its aim of stigmatising them as having failed themselves, their families and their society. Exacted from them and their children was the right to be visible in society.

A single mother’s lot in Ireland today is clearly a world away from this. To be a middle-class single mother as this writer is, is to have a job, independence and the capacity to accept the end of a relationship that had come to hurt and disappoint, in the knowledge that the children will be fed and clothed.

To be a poor single mother, however, or worse, a single mother dependent on the State, is still to be stigmatised as having failed. Too often, exacted from these women and their children is the right to participate in society. They account for the majority of the growing numbers of families becoming homeless and living in low-grade hotels.

To live in a single-parent household is to be four times more likely to be in consistent poverty than those in two-parent homes. Some 65 per cent of the children in consistent poverty at the height of the boom were in lone-parent homes.

A Family Support Agency survey in 2011 found high levels of loneliness and depression – and low levels of life satisfaction – among lone parents.

Jobseekers’ allowance

From next month, changes in children’s age limits for the one-parent family payments will result in enormous upheaval for just over 5,000 families. These single mothers will be moved on to jobseekers’ allowance and asked to get out and find work. The question of training and childcare, say organisations such as One Family, have not been adequately addressed.

The State seems to be signalling that it would be wrong for these mothers to be at home and care for their young children if to do so meant dependency on the State. Clearly, for a stay-at-home mother to be dependent on a man is acceptable.

Failing that, low-paid, low-skilled work may seem to render today’s unmarried mothers acceptable to society. Plus ça change.

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