As I researched and wrote Naked Motherhood and its subsequent thesis, I oscillated between believing I was articulating the experiences of a silent and silenced major minority in our society to wondering whether I was making a mountain out of a molehill. Two groups changed the way I viewed what I was doing forever – these were women who had not bonded with their babies, and single mothers. After meeting them, writing and publishing the book became less about personal ‘success’ and more about letting women know that if they had experienced any sense of conflict in themselves or with their children, partners, families or society after becoming mothers that they were, actually, normal. It was the echo of these women’s voices that kept me strong when my critics tried to deny that the onset of motherhood often set in motion unexpected conflicts.
Since the publication of NM I have spoken to a wide variety of community service clubs trying to interest their members in supporting new mothers – especially those who are single, isolated or having difficulties adjusting to motherhood. I have, a shocking number of times, encountered such appalling prejudice against any mother who needs support, but especially against those who are single, that I have (almost) been at a loss for words. In an almost Ku-Klux-Klanish fervour, both men and women have vehemently spat out their venom, categorically stating that it is all those ‘single, teenage, lesbian mothers’ who are ‘sending us broke’, who are incapable of ‘disciplining their children’, are the cause of our ‘violent youth’ and who ought ‘never to be allowed to have children’. Jowls a-shaking, tweed-a-twitching.
Such is the subterranean backdrop against which women enter single motherhood. Here is just a little of what my interviewees had to say about these attitudes and their effects on them.
Being a single mother today means encountering many undermining cultural attitudes and intense personal challenges. Naming them is the first part of the healing.
Well, It Was Your Choice
It is widely assumed that all single mothers fit one mould regardless of their age, education, ethnicity or convictions. The stereotype goes like this: they deliberately set out to be single, are teenagers, irresponsible, lazy, undisciplined, greedy and/or dishonest (in claiming the ‘huge’ pension) … under-educated, disorganised, hopeless financial managers … breeding out of control, serial lovers, unable to maintain a relationship, sexually frustrated, constantly eyeing-off other women’s husbands … incompetent parents, solely responsible for their children’s deprivation, lack of discipline and bad behaviour because they do not love their children as much as partnered women …. Above all, it is their fault that they are single.
On every count I found nothing could have been further from the truth. Only three of my contributors, aged 25, 32 and 38 when they became pregnant, had expected to be single mothers. They had made a one-off, momentary error of judgement only to find that they could not contemplate abortion. At the age of 38 Nikki had sadly resigned herself to never having a child when one wild fling with an old flame created her daughter. He wanted nothing to do with the child but she saw this as her last chance to become a mother. She said that while she was pregnant:
“My anticipation was very high, having looked forward to motherhood for so long. My connections with this child were very strong from the start and still are today.”
Every other woman had been in either a marriage or a stable relationship when she first became pregnant. Before their baby was born the partners of 6 percent had left, many denying paternity, all refusing to be involved. When Suzanne became pregnant (aged 25) she was delighted about the pregnancy and that this man, her permanent partner whom she expected to marry, was to be her child’s father. She said:
“He packed his bags and just didn’t come back. It was like B-grade movie stuff. Unbelievable. I thought, ‘This just doesn’t happen to people I know.’ I think the thing I resented the most was that because I chose not to terminate the pregnancy, therefore it was totally my responsibility… In fact, I chose not to do something I could not do.”
Within 18 months, 7 percent of my contributors discovered they could not continue to live with their partners and over the next five years a further 17 percent decided to leave. All of them attributed their choice to the fact that after becoming mothers they could no longer muster the wherewithal to accommodate what they considered to be an unacceptable relationship. Not one of them made this decision lightly but did so with heavy hearts, trepidation, much pain, often anger – and, usually, a great deal of judgement from others. As Colleen wrote:
“Friends of ours told me that they believed that to make a happy marriage you really have to work at it. What did they think I had been doing all those years?”
This ‘advice’ was delivered less than two months after Colleen’s husband had broken her jaw and she had left with their three pre-teenage children. Phillipa’s experience was more subtle. When she decided to leave her husband her father asked, “He doesn’t hit you, does he?” When she told him ‘no’ he informed her that she ‘had no right’ to leave. She said:
“Even though people knew about his drinking and accepted that he wasn’t great husband material, I don’t think they would ever understand the degree of fear I had because I kept up my end all the way.”
Every single mother talked about experiencing the lack of relief from mothering as an almost unbearable burden. They were acutely aware that their stress levels impacted on their children and felt guilty about their ‘inability to cope’. Julie’s ex-husband left her with the full-time responsibility for their 3-year-old and 18-month-old children, paid her nothing and ceased all contact with his family. She said:
“Basically I didn’t cope. I was over emotional. I tended to take my own anger at the broken relationship out on the kids. I was just so stressed out. I was poverty-stricken, a lot of bills to pay, didn’t have a lot of friends. I was very lonely – incredibly lonely at night. There are only so many TV shows to watch and books to read. I just couldn’t cope. I craved human, adult company.”
“I was just really loving and caring before my marriage broke up so the kids must have sensed it was a different mum afterwards. We broke up because of his drinking.”
Bianca told me that she regularly felt as though she would crack:
“In the middle of the night I would get up with a crying baby – walking around with him over my arm thinking, ‘Please don’t cry any more. I’m going to kill you. I can’t stand this. I’m going mad….”
“When Joe was little and people asked me how I was coping and I’d say, ‘Well, actually I’m that close [holding her thumb and forefinger a millimetre apart] to grabbing him by the ankle and swinging him around and smashing his head against a wall,’ and they would go, ‘Shock, horror.’”
With the perpetual demands being made on them, these single mothers had no time to themselves, especially if they worked or studied. While their children were small, they received little or no input from outside the closed circle of their relationships with their children from which to draw sustenance and strength.
Poverty and Humiliation
Where was the support for these mothers when they and their children were at their most vulnerable? Gillian, railing against the poverty of single motherhood, pointed out:
“It costs the taxpayers around $50,000 a year (now closer to $75,000) to keep a prisoner in gaol but look at what we pay our single mothers! Where is the logic in that?”
The indignation that poured out of these women over the degrading conditions in which they were expected to mother their children was enormous. They were infuriated at the men who had dumped them or failed to live up to their responsibilities and with the society for expecting so much of them while giving so little support and so much judgement. In every case their anger was not so much for the hardships they, themselves, were suffering, but because they limited their children’s lives and opportunities. Robyn told me:
“One of the hard things for me is knowing that my kids are growing up with poverty consciousness. I really hate that! I get really peeved – their father went to private school and my kids don’t have that opportunity from him.”
Contrary to popular opinion, none of these mothers wanted to have to ask the government for assistance. Yet, because they would do anything rather than see their children deprived further, they did what was necessary. Bianca said”
“If you are really doing it tough you have to humble yourself – you have to act as though you are in the bowels of the earth to get help. If you look clean and well dressed they think you are okay and just complaining. If you look lousy you get the help but you are judged as incompetent. You can’t have any pride left. I always wanted to cry out, ‘The fact that I walked in here to ask for help was hard enough!’”
Even for single mothers who go back to paid work the pull towards poverty is ever present. Because she is truly trying to fit two full-time jobs into one lifetime, she often chooses part-time paid work which nearly always pays at a lower rate and often none of the benefits of full-time paid work. If she does not experience poverty of dollars, then she experiences poverty of time. Glenda wrote:
“Whichever way you turn, you can’t win! You are always feeling guilty – either about leaving work ‘early’ or by getting home late and having your child tell you what a rotten day she had and how she ‘wished you could pick me up from school like the other mothers’. It’s the old vicious circle – you’ve either got the money and not the time, or the time and not the money! Hell, what do you do?”
I am in awe of the workload with which single mothers cope every day of every year. Should any of them ever doubt their inner strength they need only look at their schedules.
You and Me Against the World
Universally I found these mothers felt guilty for depriving their children of a father, time and resources – regardless of how they had become single. The burden of having the sole responsibility for making all decisions that would affect their own and children’s lives weighed them down. Because they had no-one with whom to share the parenting, they experienced an intensity of relationship with their children that partnered parents often do not. They ran to schedules that would kill a mule with little or no relief in sight.
Their partners often went free, started new families, prospered financially, while they felt trapped by parenthood. Yet they had to learn how to deal with his comings and goings and, all too often, the destructive impact this had on their children. Regularly these women talked about the predatory nature of other men who assumed that they must be desperate to have them in their beds, controlling their lives. This is set against a backdrop of social blame and judgement, a coupled society that excludes them and sometimes an extended family that disapproves of their choices. Even the school system often contrives to make a single mother feel as though she, and her children, are worth less than women and children from two-parent families. In the course of my work with schools I have regularly seen what Julie described:
“There was an agreement between four or five sole mothers whose kids went to my kids’ school that the teachers really didn’t care as much about what happened to ours as what happened to those from together families. It was subtle. It wasn’t so overt so everyone in the community could see it. It was just the general impression that our kids weren’t going to get anywhere anyway, so they weren’t going to bother about them.”
There seems to be an underlying assumption that single mothers do not love as much or care for their children as well as coupled parents. Therefore, it is acceptable to dismiss them. This is breathtakingly wrong. The vast majority of my contributors felt as deeply as Suzanne who told me:
“James was very important to me even when I was pregnant. I used to be very fearful that something would happen to him. After he was born he was the centre of my world. I just adored him savagely. A lot of the time I felt it was me and him against the rest of the world.”
While there is something dreadfully wrong with a social structure that causes a woman to feel as though she must continually and vigilantly defend herself and her children against their society in order to survive, all but one of these single mothers, overall, did not regret their decision to be single. They relished the independence and the freedom to make their own choices. They were relieved that they no longer had to ‘mother’ their partners. They enjoyed being able to allocate whatever resources they had in ways they chose, ordering their own priorities without argument or power struggles. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of single motherhood was, as Phillipa said: “You get a chance to raise a child the way you want to – that’s a real bonus and I don’t think many people get to do that in two-parent families.”
Above all these women all discovered talents, strengths and depths in themselves they had never expected to find. They were, to a woman, survivors. If any other group was as dismissed, blamed, used and abused as are single mothers, they would generate a social and media-driven outcry loud enough to exert political pressure for change. The silence is deafening. Unfortunately most single mothers are flat out caring and providing for their children so they cannot raise the energy to organise and fund protests or publicity – and nobody else does it for them. In any sane society one would imagine that the issue of providing safe, non-deprived environments in which to raise all our children would carry more weight than political correctness and economic rationalism. Obviously not so – yet…
Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 3, September 02