I read somewhere recently (and I have no idea where!) that families in Australia headed by single mothers are the ones that struggle the most. I’m not really surprised by this, and anyone who looks at the situation objectively would also not be surprised. Let’s look at it this way: there are, by definition, three types of families that involve dependent children (I contend that there are families that do not include dependent children, but that’s another blog post). Those three family types are headed by two parents, single mothers, or single fathers. I concede that within these groups, there are many variations, particularly for two parent families (traditional nuclear families headed by mum and dad, step-families, blended families, same sex parents, and so on).
Let’s look at each of these family types, briefly, in terms of support. Two parent families have each other for support. I’m not saying it is easy to be a parent of young children, but at least if you have another adult in the house, you have support in decision making, discipline, emotional support, and practical support, such as sharing school pick ups, taxiing children to events, supervision, and so on. Single fathers also have it tough for a number of reasons, but I contend that it is harder for single mothers than single fathers. Let me illustrate with this story. I hear this story, in its variant forms, frequently when I speak to parents.
Eva and Steve (these are not real names of participants in my research, I have chosen these names using a web-based randomiser) have two children aged 5 and 7 years old. Both Eva and Steve work outside the home, and they share childcare duties equally through some skillful juggling of the competing demands of their work lives and their home lives. Eva has to travel interstate for work purposes, and she will be absent from home for five nights. Through some epic juggling, Eva and Steve sort out the care of their children in Eva’s absence, because in that five days, Steve will be acting as a single parent. During Eva’s absence, Steve receives many offers of support from other parents at the school their children attend, from neighbours, friends, workmates, and family. This includes offers to drop the children off at school, pick the children up from school, provision of meals (“come to our place for dinner” or “would you like me to drop off a casserole?”), and childcare/spontaneous play dates. It also includes well meaning gatekeeping by other parents (“did you remember that tomorrow the children need to bring swimming gear to school?” and “don’t forget the assignment for Child 1 is due on Friday”). Some weeks later, Steve has to travel interstate for work purposes, and he will be absent from home for five nights. Through some epic juggling, Eva and Steve sort out the care of their children in Steve’s absence, because in that five days, Eva will be acting as a single parent. Do you know how many offers of help Eva gets? None. Nobody offers to drop the children at school, or pick the children up from school, or offers to drop around a casserole, or reminds Eva that the children need swimming gear the next day.
I’d like to say that this is an unusual story, but it is one that I hear over and over and over. Why is there such a different reaction to Steve as a single parent, and Eva as a single parent? In summary, it is because Eva, as a female, is deemed capable as a parent. Conversely, Steve, as a male, is deemed incapable of parenting “right”. It is because we (and yes, I’m generalising) assume that Eva will instinctively know how to parent, because she is naturally a nurturer, while Steve does not know how to be an effective parent, because his role in the family is to be a breadwinner. Think about that for a minute. I’ll wait.
This situation is not good for Evas or Steves. It pressures mothers to be “in charge” of the domestic sphere, even when she works outside the home, and it belittles fathers as being incompetent at parenting. All based on gender. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times you see a mother who happily agrees to let the father deal with all the parenting decisions, or how many times you see a father change a nappy without any fanfare, there is still an unspoken expectation that mothers instinctively know how to parent, while fathers do not. This is called “confirmation bias”, and it relates to ingrained stereotypes and belief systems.
Let me give you another example. Eva and Steve are at a public playground with their two children. One of the children falls over. Eva picks up the child, dusts her off, gives her a reassuring hug, and the child runs off to continue playing. Nobody says anything. I doubt that the whole scenario would even register on anyone’s consciousness. However, if it is Steve who picks the child up, dusts her off, and gives her a reassuring hug, there is often a murmur about how Steve is a “good” dad, and there are looks of approval between other adult onlookers. If you think I’m exaggerating, go down to your local playground this weekend and just watch the interactions (Warning: This can be considered Incredibly Creepy unless you have a small child in tow, and Highly Suspicious if you are male).
Now think about this in the context of single mothers and single fathers. I contend that single mothers receive less social support in their parenting role than single fathers receive. This is not actually even a theory, it is a result of my (as yet unpublished) research. My research (sorry, yes, unpublished, but I’m working on that), both quantitative and qualitative, clearly shows that single mothers are pretty much on their own, while single fathers are not just offered social support, but are to some extent monitored to ensure their parenting is “up to scratch”.
This all leads me to think about some common myths about single mothers that I am privileged to hear about because of my research. Let me try to debunk some of those myths here.
Myth One: Single mothers are fine, they know how to parent, and they can cope on their own. Sure, sometimes this is actually correct. I’m not saying mothers are competent or incompetent by virtue of their relationship status alone. However, sometimes mothers would appreciate some help, and that is especially true for single mothers. In trying to do it all, they often suffer from burnout a lot sooner than coupled mothers, so sometimes they would like you to pick their kids up from school, or drop a casserole around, or remind them about Book Day, Sports Day, Whatever Day.
Myth Two: If a single mum wants help, she’ll ask. Nuh-uh. Nope. Very often she will not ask for help. Why? Because if she asks for help, it is likely that you will view her as a failure as a parent, as a mother, and as a woman, because many women equate successful adulthood with being a “good” mum. Verbal reassurances that that is not what you think are pretty much like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. She thinks you are judging her. Whether this is right or not is irrelevant. You can help by offering support, rather than wait to be asked. (This is actually true of all parents. Just because they look like they have their shizzle together, doesn’t mean they have. But that’s another blog post [again])
Myth Three: Single mothers become single mothers on purpose for social security payments. Okay, people who think this have obviously never tried to survive on social security payments. Of any sort. The amount of money the government allocates to people in need – single parents, the unemployed, the disabled – is a joke. People can barely survive on those payments; they certainly don’t get rich on them. In the (literally) thousands of stories I have heard from parents, I have never heard anyone say they enjoy being dependent on government payments, nor have I ever heard anyone say they are able to survive easily on them.
Myth Four: Single mothers do not try hard enough. They drop their kids at school, then they go home and sit on the lounge all day, watching television, and eating chocolates. Right, please refer to Myth Three, above. Firstly, they can barely survive on the payments handed out by the government. Secondly, every single mother I have spoken to (I’ve lost count, but it would be 300+) tells me how she is studying to get extra qualifications to try to be better employed in the future, and/or she is contributing to society via volunteer work, and/or she is in paid employment. Apart from an innate desire to be free of government payments, social security payments are tied to the above anyway (that is, in order to receive welfare, single mums must be studying, in paid employment, or enrolled in a program that somehow makes them more likely to be employable, or gives them parenting “skills”). The problem lies in the fact that there are not enough paid positions that work in with school hours. And they have to work in with school hours, because, hello, they’re single mothers, which by definition means they are solely responsible for childcare outside of school hours.
Myth Five: I better keep an eye on my husband, because single mothers are just lying in wait to snatch him away from me. Actually, no, they are probably not. First of all, many single mothers are single mothers because of previous domestic violence, and I’m pretty sure they are in no hurry to jump back into a relationship for fear of a repeat performance. Secondly, your husband isn’t that great, and if he is, he’s not going to be easily snatched away from you. Thirdly, you’re assuming that all single mothers are hetero. Surprise! They’re not. Fourthly, single mothers of young children are too tired keeping all the balls in the air, and do not have the time or energy to be pursuing men. Fifthly, by assuming that single mothers are waiting for the first opportunity to hook up with a married man, you’re actually voicing your bias; you believe single mums are immoral.
So, what can you do to help? The message that I push in regards to parenting in general once again applies here. Offer a helping hand. Don’t be patronising. Don’t be a Judgy McJudgeface. Just be a decent human being, and offer to help. Pay it forward.
PS. Single dads, I haven’t forgotten you. I’ll be blogging about you next.