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.

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