When Amara Eno asked for contributions to her Single Parent project I was really interested – not because I am a single parent but because I was raised by one. Often single parents and their families are judged or stereotyped negatively; I wanted to share my experiences as a child from a single parent family because my upbringing and the way my mum raised me has made me who I am and I would challenge anyone who negatively judged me, or my mum, for being a single parent family unit. You can have a look at Amara’s fantastic project here http://www.amaraeno.com/3791628-the-25-percent-ongoing#1
I distinctly remember the night I first heard my parents argue. It wasn’t like a ‘you do the washing up, no YOU do the washing up’ type argument, it was an explosive one. My sister and I slept in bunk beds and I was asleep on the top bunk. It was dark so it was late and something woke me and I remember, rather oddly, the smell of onion rings in the fryer hitting me instantly. Despite living with us, my father was rarely at home. He was more like someone who visited us occasionally than a father. He was either working or out drinking. So when I awoke to his voice it was a bit of a surprise. He was aggressively shouting at my mum. I recognised, even then as a child, that there was both fear and upset in my mother’s voice as she defended herself verbally. I didn’t feel scared but I definitely had a sense that this was definitely not the way it was supposed to be. Something felt wrong, uncomfortable even.
Weeks later my father’s belongings were in suitcases that sat at the front door. I didn’t know then, but I do know now that my mum had been scared to ask him to leave for many months because she had been an unemployed housewife for many years, she had a big mortgage and two children to feed. She was miserable with him, and physically at risk of his malicious, alcohol fuelled temper. It was only as an adult that my mum told me he had tried to strangle her once. She confided in friends and decided it wasn’t in anybody’s best interests, both us and her, to keep my father at home. She made the incredibly brave decision to leave him.
The second he walked out my mum’s life drastically changed. We went from being a financially secure family living in a large three bedroomed house to living in a two bedroomed flat; my mum went from being a housewife to having to take any job that came her way. She only took work that would allow her to work when we were at school so that she could continue to drop us off and pick us up. During all of this change, my mum never once suggested to us that what was going on was hard. She maintained a smile, said it was all an adventure and turned up every afternoon to collect us from school. I remember at meal times there would only be two plates out on the table, one for me and one for my sister. When we asked mum why she wasn’t eating she would respond with ‘Oh I’m not hungry’ or a ‘Don’t worry, I’ve already eaten’ and as children we believed her. It wasn’t until we were a lot older that we realised that during that time she couldn’t afford to eat if she fed both her daughters. My Dad had moved out and refused to pay any maintenance or child support. He barely ever turned up to have us for the weekend and when he did, he sometimes asked my mum to drive us half way there because clearly a 30 minute car journey to see his two daughters was just too much to ask of him.
Despite this, mum never suggested he was a bad father or that we were in a bad situation. As I got older and started to ask for the trainers, designer clothes or games consoles that everybody else had at school, she was forced to be honest and tell us that she couldn’t afford to buy those things. As a parent now myself, I understand now how heart breaking that must have been for her. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t raise my kids to believe that money, designer trainers (you have to re mortgage your house for a pair these days!) and computer games grow on trees but having the resources to say yes occasionally is a real privilege really, particularly when you compare it to the ‘No, we can’t afford it’ response that my mum had to give us time and time again over many years.
Of course, we were just little girls then and I’m sure we threw our own fair share of tantrums over that answer. It must have hurt my mum so much. I see that now I have children of my own.
My mum went through a turbulent time, single parenting us for many years. She was so strong throughout. Our father continued to disappoint us every second weekend, not turning up, sometimes without notice and sometimes with the most ridiculous excuses. I think my mum definitely felt that she had to make up for where my father fell short. She would take us on days out, even if they were on a budget, and she would invest a lot of time in ensuring that we were happy, well balanced children despite the way in which our father messed us around.
As someone who parents alongside a partner, I can’t imagine how difficult, challenging and exhausting it was for my mum, and indeed for any single parents. Parenting is often a rollercoaster, the highs are high but the lows are low. It can be the most rewarding experience in your life but equally the most draining. When I need to go to the toilet, get changed, shower, cook (disclosure – I don’t cook very often) and so on, my husband takes the baby or takes over from me assisting with my big lad’s homework or the like. We are a team, and working as a team allows us as individuals to dip out to shower, make a phone call or take an “extended” trip to the toilet (in my experience this is one of the few places you are likely to come across peace and quiet. I often just sit, for way longer than necessary, enjoying the quiet!) knowing that he has everything in hand with the children. It’s not just the physical help that joint parenting brings, it’s that we face the challenges together, we always have someone to confide in about our shared concerns; it’s having someone to ride that rollercoaster with, someone who will hold your hand during the scary bits and celebrate with you during the bits that are exciting and exhilarating.
I can’t imagine not having my partner in crime at my side as we face the very unpredictable journey of parenting. Becoming a mother myself has definitely made me realise the sacrifices made by my mum to raise us and how challenging it must have been for her. If you asked her about it she would be very modest; she would say that she was just being a mother, raising her two girls. But I know that for those years of our childhood, she put her own life on hold. If raising us meant not eating, not going out, not having any luxuries whatsoever (by luxuries I mean pretty basic things, branded food at the supermarket, eating out at a café, having fish and chips from the chip shop) then that is what she did. And she did it with no complaint or hint of sadness.
Now I am ‘grown up’ (questionable at times, I know) I know that I am the mother that I am because of the way my mum raised me. Her decision to leave my dad, thus protecting us all and minimising the negative impact he had on our lives, was so brave. She taught me never to accept ill treatment from a man, that a woman doesn’t need a man to survive and that having a decent man as a father to my children, who joins me in parenting, is not to be taken for granted.
I know that there is nothing I could do to return the sacrifices that my mum made for us but I do feel that my sister and I owe it to her now to give her immense support and treat her to the things that she missed out on for all those years. It will never repay her but it’s important to me that she knows how much she is loved and appreciated by my sister and I. We could have been very different people if mum hadn’t made those sacrifices and it is down to her that we have ended up being (quite) well rounded human beings (ish).