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This sort of stigma might sound outdated, but it’s no longer confined to the fallback chat in the boarding school common room.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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.