JK Rowling recalls life as a single parent for Gingerbread

Divorce|Family|September 19th 2013

Although I have been married for much of my adult life, I have the greatest of respect for single parents. Raising children can be a challenge with a partner on hand to share the load – doing so solo, while also having to find or hold down a job, keep a roof over all your heads and put food on the table is a real achievement and one of which every single parent can be proud.

Single parents – especially single mothers – have so frequently been the targets of suspicion and soundbite. The sofa-bound single mother in pursuit of housing benefit is a tabloid stereotype but one that bears little resemblance to the lives of most real life single mothers, comparatively few of whom actually chose their situation. One of the surest routes into single parenthood, after all, is divorce.

That is precisely how the woman who is perhaps Britain’s best known former single mother, Joanne Kathleen ‘JK’ Rowling, ended up in Edinburgh in the early 1990s, struggling on benefits while she wrote the first book in the Harry Potter series, a series destined, as we all know, for immense success. Her marriage to a Portuguese journalist had resulted in the birth of her first child but the couple had gone their separate ways after only a year.

Rowling still, it seems, has vivid recollections of that time in her life, recalling them in a new article for single parent charity Gingerbread. In this, the author writes movingly of part-time work in a church:

“My overriding memory of that time is the slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem, not because I was filing or typing – there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it – but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen.  I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot.”

She fought her way back, beginning a teacher training course before the unexpected success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone took her life in a very different direction. She remarried in 2001 but clearly still identifies strongly with the cause of single parents and is still president of the charity.

Rowling writes:

“According to a Gingerbread survey in 2011, 87% of single parents think there is a stigma around single parenthood that needs to be challenged and one in three say that they have personally experienced it.  I find the language of ‘skivers versus strivers’ particularly offensive when it comes to single parents, who are already working around the clock to care for their children.  Such rhetoric drains confidence and self-esteem from those who desperately want, as I did, to get back into the job market.”

Quite right. Single parents on benefits – and others struggling to get back on their feet – make cheap diversionary targets for a government hell-bent, it seems, on cuts at any cost. Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with my views on the abolition of legal aid for most family law cases earlier this year.

JK Rowling in unequivocal in her support for disadvantaged single parents, writing that she is “prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life.“ Yes, prouder of struggles and achievements then than of all her subsequent success. It would be hard to argue with her call for the government  to make good use of its influence over the lives of both parents and children:

“Government has the potential to change the lives, not just of single parents, but of a generation of children whose ambition and potential must not be allowed to dissipate in poverty.”

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  1. T Bevan-Stewart says:

    While it is easy to sympathise with the parents JK describes, there is an underlying assumption here that marriage is a bed of roses and a panacea to all ills! Too often it is forgotten that a woman with children, a husband and a career has to split herself in many directions and the ability to do this without going stir crazy should also be recognised as an achievement. Sometimes I quite envy single parents who are able to make all the decisions about their children’s wellbeing without having to compromise because of a partner’s view.

    Secondly, I would take issue with JK’s statement that children’s ambition and potential necessarily dissipates if they live in poverty. She herself is living proof that poverty is not a barrier to success – there are countless examples of children who grow up on council estates or in poverty who strive to succeed, and produce the most remarkable success stories.

    I think that we all try to make the best of what we are given, but special status should not be accorded to one group over another – everyone’s ability to triumph over adversity should be lauded.

  2. JamesB says:

    If you are split-up then you get out more. I say this as if you are together you have to stay in and look after the children or get child minder to go out together. If you are not together then you get to go out again (with a new partner for example) as your old partner looks after the children.

  3. JamesB says:

    The thing with having grand parents to help with Babysitting I never had and can be very difficult to have children in a relationship without having anyone else do the child minding. A national baby sitting service should exist for this I think.

  4. Tulsa Divorce Lawyer Matt Ingham says:

    “…not because I was filing or typing – there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it – but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen. I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot.”

    Those are strong words spoken by an obviously very strong person.

    Here in Tulsa Oklahoma USA, I have represent over 200 family law clients. During my years of practice I have observed from a professional perspective the hardships that my clients face as they make the adjustment from being a married parent to being a single parent.

    In each one of the cases of clients, I have to tip my hat to the client because they adapt and grow out of necessity as their new circumstances dictate. They typically display a lot of courage during this time.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I find the generosity of the term ‘single parents’ quite amusing, as if we have to leave it gender-unspecific even though we all know it refers to mothers who have often just ditched the responsibility of marriage for a sleep-over boy-toy, and all the financial incentives offered to so-called ‘single parents’ by the government (not to mention maintenance). Gingerbread has done very well in campaigning for these privileges, whilst using the cover of gender neutrality to sideline fathers even further.

  6. Paul says:

    And building on from that, Anonymous, Rowling ignores the very crucible from which prejudice against single mothers derives – those loosely associated in the same category as her but of a variety that has a different father for each child and who displays a deficiency in application, self-respect and ability to regulate personal behaviour after the first mistake. All and many more besides, are factors that ought properly to go into an overall value judgement of single mothers. For each of Rowlings heroes my bet would be that many more exist who are without even the ghost of a suggestion that they would warrant the accolades that she is so ready to bestow upon single parents all.

    As for Gingerbread, best not to get started on that.

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