Becoming a single mother in 21st Century Britain
*Names have been changed to protect identities
My research focused on the experiences of 24 single mothers and how they were affected by these issues. The mothers’ narratives captured changes in their self-identities and emotions, and explained how they felt and responded to the negative messages they heard about themselves and others like them.
Negative messages about single mothers in the press
Through the 2000s and early 2010s, there had been a sustained outpouring of hostility towards single mothers in the popular British press. Social policy focussed on ‘family values’, which valued heterosexual, married-couple, white middle-class families as ideal, and blamed single mothers for a range of social problems, including poor education outcomes and crime. While prejudice against single mothers has a long history in the UK, these blaming discourses were intensified at this time and exacerbated following the 2011 riots.
The negative image of single mothers portrayed by the British press and in political debate was encapsulated in Little Britain’s ‘Vicky Pollard’ figure. Various media outlets portrayed single mothers, especially working-class single mothers, as ‘scroungers’, promiscuous and neglectful. These stories and images were ‘moral panics’, encouraging fear and blame of certain ‘types’ of people for social problems. This became the stereotypical image of the single mum, detracting from the disadvantages she and her family would face.
Single mothers’ responses to stigmatisation
Unsurprisingly, single mothers were affected by stigmatising messages found in the press. Some women even delayed leaving abusive relationships because they were afraid of people’s reactions (Morris, forthcoming). Emma* remained trapped in an abusive marriage for a long period of time due to her fears about stigma, and the possible impact on her children.
I didn’t want to take my kids away from their father… that was very difficult to get over, knowing that I was going to get a lot of stigma ‘cos I was a single parent, knowing I had no good qualifications, no marketable skills, no family support…
The women were highly aware of the stereotypes and often felt ashamed – even where they were able to celebrate achievements in their parenting, work and education, it could be difficult to escape these feelings: Natasha* said that "One day I was this respectable married woman with children and the next day it kind of felt that I was kind of on the bottom of the social pile."
Becoming a single mum
Becoming a single mother can be complex and emotional. It was significant that the women had not become single mothers through choice but relationship breakdown - one-third had escaped domestic abuse. Most had grown up with romantic ideas of a ‘happy family’ (being part of a romantic couple, with a loving partner, in an equal relationship and a ‘nice home’) and so experienced profound disappointment when these dreams did not come to fruition (Morris, 2020).
However, the women talked positively about ‘recovery’, ‘self-development’ and ‘becoming’ as they created new lives and priorities. Some rediscovered fun as a single person. Others were simply relieved to have escaped from unequal and/or abusive relationships, one stating, "I feel like I’ve got my brain back."
The women I interviewed rejected the negative stereotypes with more positive self-identities. They spoke about positive relationships with their children, and explained how they managed dating carefully, being mindful of their children’s needs, and often aware of the negative judgements they might attract. Some middle-class mothers distanced themselves from young, working-class or unemployed single mothers, who they felt embodied negative labels. They often emphasised that becoming a single mother was not a choice.
Unjust and precarious
Reflecting on the hardships single mothers often experience, the women talked about the unjustness of their situation. They explained how precarious life was, and how they often had to go without, describing small, damp bedsits and sofa surfing, contrasting with media stories of single-parent families on benefits living in luxury.
Susan* vividly recalled the discomfort of long bus journeys with a small child, travelling between her temporary accommodation, work, and meeting with an advisor at the job centre, the stark physical discomfort providing an insight into lived realities (Morris, forthcoming).
The hostel we lived in was in [the town] – it couldn’t have been a more horrid place and was hardly near the commercial centre of [the town] and so everything involved great long bus journeys. I think I spent a very large proportion of my time on the bus with a folded pushchair between my legs and a bored two year-old with me and we got through it.
Several women portrayed their ‘triumph over adversity’ in their stories, reflecting the individual self-responsibility expected in current neoliberal times: "It has made me resilient and just getting on with things, I don’t need to rely on people to sort things out, you just sort it out yourself".
Using narrative research to listen to single mothers in this way gave insights into their experiences and complex emotional terrain at a time when UK culture was stigmatising and unsupportive. Their narratives convey how people respond to and talk about stigmatisation. Findings carry continued relevance in terms of experiences of precariousness, isolation and hardship, likely to resonate in today’s economic and policy climate: Living standards for lone parent families have declined following 10 years of UK austerity, burgeoning child poverty and cuts to tax credits, gender-based violence services and Legal Aid.
Charlotte Morris is a Lecturer in Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.
Research references here have been taken from her published articles, an upcoming article, ‘Single mothers narratives of domestic abuse, relationship breakdown and transitions to single motherhood’ and her contributions to the following books: