Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Accepting single mums (and Madonna)

"Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep... I'm gonna keep my baby" sang Madonna, in 1986. A defiant song of a young woman who got pregnant and decided to keep the baby and become a single mum, standing up to pressure from her family, friends and community.

It's really hard being a single mum, but now that we accept them, our society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago.

Broke, lonely, tired and a bit crazy

Being a single mum is pretty shit in a lot of ways:
  • We are likely to have less money than our loved-up buddies
  • We can be lonely because there's no one to talk to once the kids are in bed, and it's harder for us to go out than mums in two-parent families (partly because we have less money)
  • We constantly have to make tough decisions on our own
  • We're probably even more tired than the other tired mums, because we're one person doing a two-person job
All this means that we're also more likely to experience mental health problems. Broke, lonely, stressed, knackered and a bit crazy - that sums it up.

Madonna By Olavtenbroek (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Where did the single mums come from?

These are problems shared by a lot of people - there are around 1.8 million single mums in the UK.

Not very long ago there weren't many single mums (the numbers crept up steadily from the 1970s to the 1990s). That wasn't because people were holding off having sex until they were married. Nor was it because couples were better at staying together through thick and thin. It was for the chilling reason that they weren't allowed to keep their babies. They were pressurised on all sides, by family and society, to give up their children. Because being a single mum was seen as a really bad thing. If you wanted to adopt a child, it was much easier to get a baby then that it is now, because of all these would-be-single-mothers. We know now that it's better for children to stay with their mothers if they can.* And now they can.

Papa Don't Preach has less resonance today than it did in 1986. It's still a tough choice for any young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and alone. But it's a choice they're allowed to make, because being a single mum is acceptable. It's not an easy road - it can be pretty shit. But we're not outcasts (even if the Daily Mail want us to be). The fact that so many of us exist means our society is better, in one way, than it was 30 years ago. It has become so acceptable, that some women, who don't have a partner, choose to embark on parenthood alone.

Impact on children

All parents worry, I know they do. But as a single mum (and Grade A worrier) I constantly worry about the impact of our living situation. How will it affect my daughter, living with a parent who is constantly broke, lonely, tired and a bit crazy? What will happen when she gets older and I can't afford to give her everything her friends have? Will she be lonely, just living with me? Do I make the wrong decisions about her upbringing because I don't have anyone to help me decide? And my worst fear - what if I die in the night and she wakes up and there's no one there?

It's not helped by the fact that if the child of a single mother does anything remarkable then the media will depict them as struggling from a deprived background against the odds. The implication is that if you just live with your mum, then it's remarkable if you ever get anywhere. And if you do stray from the path of virtue, well that's just to be expected of a child from a broken home. No wonder Madonna's dad wasn't impressed.

The fact is that children of single parents don't grow horns - they look the same as everyone else. Some of them do great things and some of them don't. Maybe it is a little harder for them, but a lot of people have some adversity in their lives. I'm just crossing my fingers, doing my best, and hoping it will be alright.

As far as I know, Madonna didn't follow her anthem to impending single motherhood with any ditties about how the baby turned out, and he/she would be turning 30 about now. Hopefully they're not a total psycho.

* Actually I wrote a PhD thesis showing that we've known for at least 200 years that it was better for babies to stay with their mothers. But it was only recently that we started to act on it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Working mums

The word 'juggling' is associated with working mothers a lot - juggling childcare and juggling work. It's also about juggling feelings - guilt, worry, inadequacy (at parenting and work). And fear that my childcare plans will come crashing down so that one day in October I will have to phone my boss and say, 'I can't come to work this week because there's no one to look after my daughter. Oh and I've run out of annual leave. Sorry 'bout that.'

Dedication to your job 

I like my job. I enjoy the things I do and I like my colleagues. Since I brought a child into the world, my attitude to my job hasn't really changed.

Recently a colleague asked me to do something five minutes after I should have left the office. It wasn't a big job. In pre-child-land I would have done it. Because if you're dedicated to your job, you're happy to stay a few minutes extra to make sure something gets done right.

But now it's not an option. I can't leave the office more than five minutes after my official finishing time. Not just this once, not ever. Not because we have a deadline or I'm giving a presentation in the morning. Not ever.

I have to get home to feed my child. She's hungry and tired and waiting for me. I have to go right now. She doesn't give a crap about doing a good job on my presentation. She just wants her mum to come home and do a good job at cooking her some fish fingers so she can do a good job of throwing them on the floor.

Guilt and worry

To the colleague who asks me to stay just a little late for something important, I say lots of sorries and a no, and leave, feeling guilty that I didn't do the job and guilty that I'm a few minutes late. It's non-stop guilt, this working mother thing. Guilt that sometimes I'm too tired from work to be a good mum, or guilt that I've been up half the night mothering so I'm too tired to do my job properly.

And I worry that I am away from my toddler for so many hours each day, that I won't be there for her when she falls over and hurts herself or when she's overtired, that when she tells her grandparents or the nursery staff "I want my mummy", that they will have to gently tell her that I will be back later. I worry that I don't play a big enough part in her development, that her care is too fragmented between her relatives and nursery. I worry that she will miss me, or worse, that I will be away so much that she will stop missing me.

I worry that my colleagues won't think I'm committed to my job because when it comes to these moments I choose child over work. But it's not even a choice. Come 5.30 there's no one else to look after her so I have to be there.

Being late

Often I'm late for work. But more often I'm surprised we get there at all. Toddlers don't have a concept of time. Explaining that they really have to put their boots on now because Mummy is going to be late for work and get in trouble with her boss is really ineffective (I do it at least once a week). Walking from the house to the car must be unassisted, stopping to look at twigs and feathers along the way. It's both beautiful and infuriating.

A child rushing to get to nursery on time. Photo by Casch52 via Flickr Creative Commons
Last week when my bundle of joy dragged her feet I hit on the brilliant idea of a race to the car, She sped off, tripped over her own feet and bled all over the pavement. Back to the house for cuddles, antiseptic, plasters and chocolate. Major punctuality and child safety fail.

People tell you to enjoy every moment, to treasure the times when they look amazed at a feather and watch it float to the ground. These people are not looking after a toddler and trying to hold a job down.

Forgetting work

I don't check my work emails from home anymore. If someone asks me to do something for work on a weekend, I'm very likely to forget.

It's not that I don't care. It's not even that I feel differently about my job since my daughter was born. But I'm on child-watch now, and toddlers constantly demand attention. I can't work from home when she's there, If I switch on my laptop and try to do an online grocery shop she'll be clambering on my lap within five minutes, trying to "help". Attempting work is useless.

Before I became a parent my friend, a solicitor, told me that the minute she walks out of the office door she switches into "mummy mode" forgetting all about case files and judges and checking that she has the baby wipes and knows what she's going to cook the kids for tea. I thought I'd never be like that - I could never switch off from my very interesting job so easily and think about such mundane things, but I'm exactly the same. I have to be, because I have to be there on time and the minute I'm there I need to make sure that my daughter is fed, cleaned and watered as she needs to be.

Sorry, but I have to go...

I'm making this working mother thing sound like a nightmare. It's not, it's pretty amazing in lots of ways: having independence, supporting your family financially, doing something rewarding that isn't changing nappies, not having to be 'mummy' all the time, and just having a career. There was never any question that I would go back to work when my daughter was born. I'm not cut out for stay at home parenting (I admire those who are), and I am committed to my job. But I'm more committed to the little girl who is waiting for me to get home.

Being a working mum is really hard, We are contributing to society, paying our taxes, carrying out a service to whichever industry we work in, and we are bringing up the next generation. Perhaps we should shout a little louder about this - to ourselves and our society. And stop apologising.