In praise of feckless, scrounging single mothers

Anyone who has raised a child on their own knows it's a tough job. Why is there such a stigma attached to single parenthood?

Single mothers - what are we gonna do with them, eh? They prance around, brazenly raising their children right under our faces, struggling for money and taking up school places with their kids who will just end up dealing drugs in the primary school playground anyway. What a scourge on society these women are, who must have immaculately conceived in a selfish bout of benefit-claiming spite and now stuff their families’ faces with free school meals served on golden platters. And how bad at mathematics they must be, to have surely calculated that having that family was financially worth doing, only to find that their income support barely stretches to the school uniforms. Ha! That’ll learn ‘em!

This sort of stigma might sound outdated, but it’s no longer confined to the fallback chat in the boarding school common room. In our experience, it’s actually accelerated during the recession, big-time. For one thing, the Guardian reported that the biggest losers from the Budget will be single mothers, who face losing their benefits if they don’t work longer hours which are not justified by the skyrocketing price of childcare. Women, part-time workers and parents found their purse strings tightened after changes to the welfare system, and the majority of single mothers tend to tick all of these boxes. Meanwhile, in times of austerity, the phrase “single mother” is often treated as if it were synonymous with “socially irresponsible” - or, if you really want to push the boat out, that charming label “scrounger”.

In the US, prejudice against single motherhood can be even more pronounced. American films often make a nod towards the idea that “single mother” is a polite term for “stripper” or “prostitute”, while national reports into crime statistics are often juxtaposed with statistics on single parent families. This practice is so widely recognised and accepted that the Atlantic posted an article a few days ago claiming that “Single mothers can’t be scapegoated for the murder rate anymore”. The LA Times on Saturday similarly published a piece where the writing journalist spoke about the reaction to an article she wrote crediting single mothers with helping to re-elect Obama. Apparently, a lot of people had seen that as “tacit encouragement of one parent homes over two”, which she felt that she had to explicitly clarify was not the case or her agenda. This journalist had raised her children as a single parent following the death of her husband, referring to herself as a “single mother” along the way. One commenter, however, informed her that widowed or divorced women “don’t count” as single mothers, because “single mother” is a label exclusively reserved for shaming people who had dared to procreate out of wedlock. The implication was that she should differentiate herself from these vile harridans who can’t even officiate themselves under God before popping out a sprog, and that she should go about this differentiation by declaring herself a “widowed mother”, whether she wanted to regularly reveal personal details about her life to strangers or not. 

Anyone who has singlehandedly raised children knows that it is far from a walk in the park. We’ve never attempted to do it ourselves, but we were both raised by strong, hardworking, inspirational single mothers. And there are still an astonishing amount of people we have come across - young and old - who have voiced their opinion that those like our mothers have single-(parent)-handedly destroyed the nation and ripped the taxable wages right out of their hands. Like so many conservative arguments, they centre around the idea that a mere "lifestyle choice" is to blame for self-imposed hardship, despite the fact that if you could actually and genuinely choose your lifestyle, most people would go for the “champagne breakfasts and high society” one rather than the “Primark t-shirt covered in baby sick at the 5am feed” one. It’s a nice little argument to deny people support and rights, but it doesn’t really bear out that someone might choose a damp, cramped flat in Nottingham over a palace in Chelsea because they just love the radical lifestyle allowed by walls that grow mushrooms.

Now, it hasn’t slipped our attention that single dads exist, and that in most articles about single parenthood, they hardly ever get a look in. This is partly because they comprise a tiny percentage of single parents, which is, of course, no reason to ignore them. Most single fathers - like most single mothers - are dedicated, conscientious people who try to do right by their children in the face of crippling social discrimination. And when single dads disappear from the equation, it can be as much an indicator of misogyny as it is denial that the fathers themselves exist. In 2011, the Daily Mail headlined findings that Britain has a lower number of coupled families than our Euro-counterparts with “Single mother Britain: UK has most lone parents of any major European nation”. The implication was, of course, that no single fathers exist, and that women doing things independently are once again ruining things for everyone. Right then.

When fathers do get a media mention, it tends to have a less judgmental slant (of course, custody issues in the courtroom are another matter entirely and do often favour mothers, for a myriad of equally unfair reasons.) There is a particular kind of fury reserved for the mothers, and usually an implicit sympathy for the fathers, as if by sticking around in the first place, these dads must be a truly decent bunch and a great example of manhood. Not so for the mother majority, who are all too often left to shoulder the burden of national murder rates and snide remarks about sex workers alone. In our time at the helm of the Vagenda, we’ve also experienced some (admittedly crackpot, but disturbingly regular) assurances that “men nowadays” are suffering psychologically (read: becoming “feminine”, submissive, or even - gasp - gay) because of a prevalence of single mothers. One even went so far as to say that if a man was raised by a single mother, he would make an “unsuitable husband” in the future. Could it be that these unmarried mums are part of the Gay Agenda too? They aren’t living in a nuclear family with a white picket fence, so we’ll go with “probably”.

Shoehorned into the “natural primary caregiver” role, women often find themselves chastised for doing things on their own. Those who believe that single parent families are bringing down the morals of the nation usually also believe that “it’s not natural” is a great line of argument for almost anything, and that the ladies are more suited to preparing a hot dinner for their husbands coming in. Additionally, of course, those quickest to judge single mothers are ordinarily also anti-abortion, which is a beautiful right wing paradox in itself. But as it turns out, keeping the caricature in our head of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard pushing six discount pushchairs around the council estate as she swigs a cider isn’t exactly contributing to cultural progression. And if you really want to better society, it might be a whole lot more productive to change your own opinions than it is to rail against the so-called “lifestyles” of others.

Single motherhood isn't a "lifestyle choice". Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.