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.
“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.”