Single parents are usually portrayed as teenage mums who have got themselves pregnant on purpose to sponge off the State.
The reality is, of course, totally different. The average age of single parents is 36 and most have previously been married and hold down a paid job. Just 2% are teenagers. In fact, single parents of children over 12 are more likely to work than mothers in couples.
They face a multitude of difficulties, such as lower earnings – because they have greater problems fitting work around family life – and yet, instead of support, they often run the gamut of negative stereotypes.
If working mums are stigmatised in the press as hard-bitten selfish career women, this is as nothing compared to what single working mums face, say campaigners.
, the charity for single parents, wants to change this and has launched a campaign to challenge underlying prejudices.
The charity was relaunched in 2009 when it merged with another charity, One Parent Families. It asked its members what their priorities were and was surprised how high the stigma attached to being a single parent featured.
Kate Bell, Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread, says that it was decided to launch the ‘lose the labels’ campaign as a result but to time it to coincide with the lead-up to the general election, when single parents often get used as a political football. This is partly because family policy has become increasingly central to political debate.
Already, for instance, the issue of tax benefits for married couples has brought up the usual negativity about single parent families. Bell’s response is that one in four families in the UK is a single parent family. “They need to be supported. It really shouldn’t be a question of what type of family is best. We need to deal with the reality,” she says.
She adds that it is not just about the image of single parents given in the media. The impact often seeps through into people’s daily lives. She cites the example of a single mum doing a masters course in social policy who had to face comments from fellow students about how bad single parents were. “It does filter through to how people treat each other,” she says.
Much of the coverage of single parents seems to focus on poor outcomes for their children, but Bell says this is a rash generalisation. In fact, research shows that it is the degree of conflict which is present in families, whether they split up or stay together, that most affects children. “US research shows that where parents were in conflict and stayed together the outcomes for their children were as bad or worse than if they separated.”
She adds that when people talk about single parents, they tend to focus on unmarried teens “rather than their sister who got divorced last year”. “There is no typical single parent,” she says.
Rather than focus on stereotypes, she wants more emphasis on positive role models and support for parents who face a range of practical difficulties. Gingerbread says single parents’ average hourly wage is £9.71 per hour, compared with £11.19 for couple mothers, for instance. This is, says Bell, because they tend to have to choose a type of work that allows them to be with their children as much as possible because their children are wholly reliant on them. That can mean part-time work, which tends to be done mainly by women – and 9 out of 10 single parents are women – and tends to be paid at a lower hourly rate than full-time work. “It’s all about the gender pay gap,” says Bell.
“There’s a lot of focus on single parents who don’t work, but that obscures the fact that most single parents do. People working in lower paid jobs are less likely to access their rights,” she adds.
She agrees there have been major improvements in recent years with initiatives aimed at encouraging single parents into work, including working family tax credits. However, she adds that single parents are still saying they are paying a lot of money on childcare. Another issue is flexibility at work.
One single mum told workingmums.co.uk she was working full time, but having problems because of the “rigidity of working hours and ‘micro-management’ in my office”. Her children are 10 and 6 and she has had to spend most of her annual leave on snow days, colds and viruses this winter. She informally requested to increase her hours so she could build up leave, but was initially refused and then told she could work extra hours but build up no more than 10 at any one time, which she could use only for dependant responsibilities and which would expire within three months if not used. “I am bitter and resentful about going into work every morning and have no motivation or loyalty towards my department any longer,” she says.
Bell says the main political parties seem to be very positive about flexible working and “appear to be competing with each other to be the most family friendly”. However, she would like to see real initiatives backed by funding. “We want real measures and for them to put their money where their mouth is,” she says.
Gingerbread’s campaign is in two stages. The first focuses on politicians in the lead-up to the general election. They are trying to get MPs to sign up to not stigmatising single parents during the campaign and already have the three main party leaders on board. The second stage is more broad-ranging and starts after the election. Gingerbread, which has the support of numerous celebrities – including JK Rowling – who were either single parents or brought up by single parents, wants people to highlight examples of good and bad practice around single parents.
Read Chantelle’s story.