Single mother, and all that

Unmarried parents now account for one in three births, compared with about 10 per cent of births in 1980 and just 5 per cent in 1960.

Families tend to blend as single-parent households now the most common.’

The other day a friend was bringing me up to speed on a mutual friend, an older woman who has recently taken on a ‘foster-teen’. The boy needed support because, well, you know, single mother and all that.

Single mother. And all that.

All that … neglect? Bad parenting? Rotten example? Drug abuse? Loose or poor morals? Alcoholism? Violence? Psychological abuse? Now we all know that if she’d said ‘well, you know, dual parents,’ none of those things could possibly apply.

In a ‘post-feminist’ world (and I use the term in its ironic and tragic sense) I am outraged and saddened that we still bandy about the pejorative term ‘single mother’. ‘Single mother’ encapsulates all the sorrows and damages of fatherlessness, while cleverly (from a patriarchal point of view) placing the onus of responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the mother.

I’m not alone in my frustration, but I’m too late to write the Single Mother’s Manifesto – in April, fabulously successful single mother JK Rowlings pipped me at the post.

In June, our very own ‘feminist stalwart’ Bettina Arndt wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in a truly appalling and disturbing critique of Julia Gillard’s unmarried woman status and its potential negative effect on the rest of us women:

Every day we see well-known Australians making dubious lifestyle decisions being lauded in the media – celebrities choosing to become single mothers, unwed fathers, parents dragging children through a succession of chaotic ”blended” families.

That’s right Julia, for shame! Encouraging us to the vices of living out of wedlock. You know – neglect, bad parenting, setting of a rotten example, drug abuse, loose and poor morals, alcoholism, violence, psychological abuse.

But, thanks Bettina, now there’s another kind of single mother to add to the blacklist – the ‘celebrity’ single mother, who clearly can’t ‘get a husband’ because she is too beautiful, rich and successful.

The celebrity single mother must be the antidote to that scheming vixen, the career welfare mother who sees the endless riches and rewards of single parenting and thinks: I’m going get myself knocked up so I can get me some of that and live the high life, rip off the system and never work – my escape from drudgery, hahahaha.

And how about the single mother who before she became a single mother was a married mother? Like JKR. A divorced mother. But this kind of single mother presumably has some kind of shared access/custody arrangement. So how single is the parenting? Or has the other parent simply ceased to exist?

What about that unmarried-but-once-in-a-de facto-relationship mother – the separated mother. Again – has the separated father’s responsibility evaporated?

Then there’s the divorced/separated-from-domestic abuser kind of single mother. Or the sorry-dad’s-a-hopeless-alcoholic/drug addict/criminal single mother. Or the he-didn’t-want-to-have-anything-to-do-with-the-pregnancy-beyond-conception-and-has-subsequently-contributed-nothing-but-his-conspicuous-absence single mother.

Or the he-turns-up-every-now-and-again single mother.

Or the she-didn’t-want-to-have-anything-to-do-with-him-after-the-pregnancy-and-made-the-decision-to-go-it-alone single mother.

Or the I-married-him-and-shared-my-parenting-I-promise-but-he-died, single mother.

Or the I-am-married-but-my-children’s-father-is-detained/imprisoned/ deported single mother.

Or the I-don’t-know-what-went-wrong-with-my-marriage-but-we’re-trying-to-work-it-out single mother.

Or the have-you-met-my-children-they’re-bloody-brilliant-so-take-your-assumptions-and-shove-them-up-your-arse single mother.

Of course, whatever kind of single mother we’re talking about – there is really only one kind. You know: single mother and all that.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Clare, your post made me think of Pat Robertson and this quote:

    [Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

    As the child of a single mother, who knows many other single mothers, I can’t believe this stigma survives. But then again, women [successfully] raising children on their own? Definite threat to the traditional institution of the family.

    1. Thanks Jacinda. Funny, if you go back far enough, I don’t think men had much to do with children and ‘family’ was certainly no ‘nuclear’ pod with two cars and a brick-veneer.

      You turned out all right then, considering 🙂

  2. Hell yeah!

    I wanted to kick Bettina Arndt in the TEETH. As well as all of the issues you’ve raised (which I shan’t repeat but am righteous about), she totally ignored the possibility of same sex parents. And as a lesbian intending to have kids with my girlfriend, who will probably be considered a ‘single mother’ by this government, I am offended!

    1. Of course! Another kind of ‘single mother’ for the list! (sorry I missed them, Georgia, and thank you for amending my thoughtlessness).

      Then there’s the whole ‘IVF single mother’ crew of all descriptions – including OLDER WOMEN wanting to be single mothers!

      Yes, Bettina’s article was stupid and offensive, as is the govt’s attitude to same-sex relationships.

      As the parent of a 17-year-old all I can say is: don’t do it! (Kidding :)).

      When ‘Gen Y’ come into their own and start being politicians and stuff, I think the gender-politics will change a lot and for the better – in my experience, they (and I know I generalise with the good old ‘they’) just don’t have the same attitudes to, or hang-ups about, sexual identity.

      1. Georgia, I met a high-school friend a few years back – he and his partner share a child with his child’s mother and her partner, so the boy has two sets of same-sex parents. Pioneers, I reckon, and it really works for them. ‘Family’ is about love and that’s all. More so even than blood.

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