How the legacy of Victorian times still looms over single mothers

No single mother I’ve known could be called a "shirker" - and yet the discriminatory influence of the 19th century continues.

When I was 12 years old, I was told “You’re the man of the house now. It’s up to you to fix the problems here.” My mam was and is a fascinating creature - a combination of every kind of traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” aspect you can think of: naive; strong; offensive; a sensitive soul; racist; loving; fierce; “spiritual”; belligerent; a carer; Darwinian; disabled; and so much more. It was she who told me “It’s up to you...” 

This might seem like a very strange thing for a mother to say to a 12-year-old boy. However, she had her reasons, and they weren’t necessarily all under her control. The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. And it’s up to us to put them to sleep.

My mam and her mother never saw eye to eye, and she was sent to boarding school at an early age. My mam only had sixteen years to form a sense of self and a moral compass, after that she was a parent. Being pregnant at sixteen meant the mother that sent her to boarding school shunned her whether or not she was married. Soon after, she was a single mother.

Growing up with her in Wales, my mother maintained that everything had to give the impression of being “respectable.” She’d never let us go to school looking shabby; she’d never let friends come over without a week’s warning; she’d never go drinking for fear of being branded a harlot. This last thing she told me once over a new year’s drink, just us, watching the countdown on TV when I was sixteen. Of course, however much she tried, we often went to school looking shabby.

Even at thirteen, I knew my mam’s moral compass was Victorian. I remember thinking the nuns and her mam must have really done a number on her, but now I know, of course, it was far more than that: there is a lack of feminism in the British political and mainstream understanding of women. It’s been here since the Victorian era imposed radical, impossible expectations on women. And that era isn’t so long ago.

Think about your grandparents. Their parents were Victorians. It is so close, there is living memory of it - it’s under our noses and under our skin. No more so than in popular media. I can’t watch the TV show Little Britain without wanting to kick the TV far enough to smack Matt Lucas’s smug face. It demeans each one of the characters it plays on for laughs - play isn’t even the word, it crushes them for laughs. Its depiction of Vicky Pollard, though, grotesque enough for some to see through, subconsciously influences the way we think about single and young mothers.

J K Rowling has written of how she was treated when she was a single mother on benefits. No single mother I’ve known could be called a ‘shirker’. We can talk about the wonders of the 21st century until we’re lying in tech-landfill, but until we’re another century away from the Dickensian era, there will still be mothers ashamed of their pregnant daughters, telling them they’re not “respectable”. I don’t give a flying fig about “respectability” - the very term is a reinforcement of nepotism and plutocracy - and neither should you. Unless, that is, you like being a Dickensian character.

My mam, however, did and still does - the moral code that’s been forced down your throat is not something you remove from your innards lightly. Especially one that causes such an unconscious misogyny on both sides of the gender divide.

Google’s NGram, which tracks word frequency in literature shows the word “respectability” reached its usage height in 1834 - three years before Victoria became Queen, yet its spectre is seen throughout her reign as something which is so intrinsic, so insidious, that it is “..believed to distinguish the middle class of society” when discussed by Thomas Archer in 1870. While its usage is definitely levelling off in 2013 its Victorian spectre remains. It remains in the way people instinctively react to the term ‘single mother’ or ‘family of six’ on benefits’ in the mainstream media. It remained enough to make my mam worried sick, to instill in her an idea that she was instinctively wrong to enjoy sex, and to stunt her growth at the age of sixteen.

The single mother is seen throughout Victorian literature and neo-Victoriana as shunned and suffering. Correspondence on the matter from the time shows this aspect and a desire to help but also shows the flipside that my mam feared: the opinions that women get pregnant to gain financial benefit, to “trap” a man, and because they’re lazy. There are few jobs harder than being a single mum. I repeat: no single mother I’ve ever known could be called a ‘shirker’.

When newspapers brand single mums on benefits ‘shirkers’ they are reinforcing those Victorian opinions. Not only that, they have little to no idea of how their opinions and the social climate their opinions create affect that family. Some might argue that they know exactly what they’re doing - I couldn’t possibly say - to create a social climate of fear and oppression would be Dickensian.

My mam did, as all mothers do, her best. It was more than enough but she still felt that we needed to fix things. In teenage arguments, she’d always say that she was “going to fix things” and that as the man of the house I should be fixing them too.

I’m 28 now, I was still a teenager in the early noughties. In the beginning of the 21st century in a rich Western country, my ma shouldn’t have felt that need to fix things - she shouldn’t have felt ignominy at her situation but she knew how single mums are branded. The spectre of Victorian values haunts all single mothers. Let’s exorcise it.

Ben Gwalchmai is the author of Purefinder, a satirical novel set in Victorian times that explores themes still all too relevant tody. Published by Cosmic Egg Books from 13 December 2013: http://www.cosmicegg-books.com/books/purefinder

The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

0800 7318496