Why Single Parents Matter - Amy Brown
Hi. What brought you here? If you’re feeling anything like the many single parents I have spoken to over the last year, I’m guessing it’s because you’re hoping to read or listen to something about single parenting that isn’t a negative headline or focuses on all the things you need to do. Perhaps something that makes you feel seen and understood? Maybe you’re here because you support parents, or someone in your life is a single parent and you want to learn more. Perhaps you just want to understand this experience of parenting better. Whoever you are and whyever you are here, welcome.
This book is all about single parents. I deliberately chose that title rather than single parenting, because I wanted this to be about better understanding, sharing and validating the experiences of single parents. Naturally we’re going to talk about supporting children too, but most of the book is about how we support those doing the caring. It’s about highlighting the many different journeys that lead to someone becoming a single parent, the visible and not-so-visible impacts of that, and how we can all help play a role in supporting them.
If you’re reading this as a single parent, I hope this book makes you feel included. I hope you read or listen to parts and think ‘that’s so like me!’. I hope you feel reassurance and validation from reading about the challenges other parents have faced, or unhelpful things that people say (you know, like ‘I wish I got a break from my children too’). If you’re reading this because you want to better support the single parents in your life, thank you. I hope it helps show you some of the many varied experiences of single parenting and how they can feel. I also hope the section on how you can support a single parent is useful.
Who do we define as a single parent?
According to the last count by the Office of National Statistics in the UK, there are almost 3 million single parents in the UK, or around one in six families with a child under 18. Most of those parents are female and most are the biological mother to their children. But there are many different types of single parent and varied stories of how they became one. Some will have become a single parent through choice, perhaps as an adoptive parent or via IVF. Others will have sadly lost a partner. Many will have had a difficult past relationship with their child’s other parent, although sometimes partners grow apart amicably, or did not really know each other in the first place.
One of the most common questions I hear on this topic is ‘but what actually counts as a single parent?’. It can be really tempting to start comparing different scenarios, as a sort of ‘hierarchy of difficulty’ of single parenting, but I don’t think that’s particularly helpful, for many reasons. Although some situations may appear more difficult than others on paper, we’re not single parents in a bubble. Our broader experiences including finances, health, and other relationships can really affect our experience of single parenting.
To me, the core part of being a single parent is that your child’s other parent is not around to share the load of caring for your child and being part of your family day to day. Clearly, the scenarios mentioned above are all very different and will be driven by different complex emotions, different past experiences and differences in current potential support. Despite that, however, there is something uniting about the experience of single parenting – perhaps a shared understanding of what it is like to not have someone else that you love and care for sharing the day-to-day responsibility of caring for your child.
Of course, many single parents will go on to start a new relationship. As we will see later, that can be a very positive experience, or it can add further complexities. However, even when a new partner is very hands-on, loving, and takes on some of the mental load, I think many single parents still feel, to varying degrees, a greater responsibility for their child. New relationships can throw up all sorts of strange financial and support complexities too. Although some couples might see themselves as two parents, others feel that they are still a single parent but in a relationship.
Some single parents will have an ex-partner who still supports their children. As we know, this experience can vary hugely. It might range from a genuinely shared load of emotional, practical and financial support, through to occasional visits or sketchy financial support payments. Others will not have any support, due to a partner disappearing, refusing to pay or because of bereavement. Some people prefer to refer to parenting without another parent or adult present as ‘solo parenting’.
Relationships between co-parents can also vary greatly. Sometimes two parents get along even better than before in a co-parenting relationship. They are caring, friendly and supportive of each other. Conversely, some will continue to experience emotional and financial abuse from an ex-partner who remains in their life due to their child. Some might be in the middle, trying to stay civil and friendly to maintain stability for their children.
I’m not quite done yet, though (see why this gets complicated?). Throw in other elements that intersect with the experience of being a single parent, such as whether you have the support of a close-knit family who take a hands-on role, money, work, health, disability, wellbeing, the religious and cultural views of people around you… and generally, it just becomes really hard to say that experiences can be ‘ranked’ in some way. Everyone’s situation is different, but that core aspect of no longer living with, or never having had a relationship with the other or another parent of your child, is what single parents have in common.
I’ll come back to this later, but I want to make a note on the common suggestion that someone can ‘feel like a single parent’ because their partner works long hours, works away, or despite living in the same house doesn’t play an active role. Those are all really tough situations and deserving of support in their own ways, but they’re distinctly different from single parenting. Sadly, of course, some people will be in relationships in which their partner does not contribute equally or at all to the financial, emotional and practical load of parenting. However, doing the day-to-day care for your children alone, but having financial and emotional support from your child’s other parent, is different to single parenting.
My attempts to describe what a single parent is clearly show the depth and diversity of who single parents are. I have my own experiences of separation and single parenting, but I am just one person, and I wanted to bring a variety of different voices to this book. So I invited 17 parents with experience of single parenting, from different backgrounds, to share their experiences and supportive messages. Alongside exploring their journey to single parenthood, I asked them about the challenges they faced and things that helped them. I hope that if you are a single parent reading this book, you find something of yourself in these stories, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t cover every single scenario. As we go through the book I’ve tried to balance information and support as it applies to relationship breakdown, bereavement and choice. Although I think a lot of the content applies across scenarios, there will be some information and sections directed towards each of these contexts.