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“I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life”

Gingerbread President J K Rowling writes exclusively on stigma, welfare cuts and her experience of being a single parent.

J K RowlingNearly twenty years ago (it’s a shock to me to write that, because it still seems quite a recent occurrence) I became a single parent.  Like the vast majority of single parents, this had not been my plan.  My much-wanted daughter had been conceived and born while I was married, but the failure of that relationship saw me living shortly afterwards on state benefits in the coldest winter Scotland had seen in quite a few years.  I had been living in sunny Portugal prior to my return to the UK and the snow was merely the first shock to my system.

I had imagined that I would be back at work fast.  Indeed, it was because I expected to be employed outside of the home again that I was working so hard to finish the children’s novel I never told anyone I was writing (not wishing to be told that I was deluded).  As it turned out, my belief I would shortly be back in paid work turned out to be a much bigger delusion than the hope that the novel might be published.  

I was a graduate and I had been in full-time employment all my life; I did not want my daughter to grow up in poverty, but my district health visitor told me that I would never get state-funded childcare ‘because you’re coping too well’; free nursery places for very young children were reserved at that time for children deemed ‘at risk’.  I can’t argue with the prioritisation of children whose mothers weren’t coping, but I had nobody else to look after my daughter.  My sister worked full time, my mother was dead, I was in a strange city: where was my daughter supposed to go while I earned a living?

I ended up working a few hours a week at a local church, where I overhauled the filing system and did a bit of typing.  The (female) minister let me bring Jessica with me.  I was paid, deliberately, exactly that amount that I could keep without losing benefits: £15.  For all of this, I was immensely grateful.

My overriding memory of that time is the slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem, not because I was filing or typing – there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it – but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen.  I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot.   Patronage was almost as hard to bear as stigmatisation.  I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother.  I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother?  Ought I to be allowed in a church at all?  Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?  

Single parents were not popular in certain sectors of the establishment or media in the mid-nineties.  I could not raise a smile over the government minister of the time singing a merry ditty about ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue.’  Newspaper articles discussed single mothers in terms of broken families and anti-social teenagers.   However defiant I might feel about the jobs I was doing round the clock (full-time mother, part-time worker, secret novelist), constant bombardment with words like ‘scrounger’ has a deeply corrosive effect.   Assumptions made about your morals, your motives for bringing your child into the world or your fitness to raise that child cut to the core of who you are.

Then, in a sudden, seismic and wholly unexpected shift, I found myself in the newspapers.

There was still no escaping the Single Parent tag; it followed me to financial stability and fame just as it had clung to me in poverty and obscurity.  I became Single Parent Writes Award-Winning Children’s Book/Earns Record American Advance/Gets Film Deal.  One of the first journalists to interview me asked me whether I hadn’t felt I ought to be out looking for a job rather than ‘sitting at home writing a novel.’  By some miracle I resisted the almost overwhelming temptation to punch him and subsequently decided to channel my frustration a little more positively by becoming a Patron of what was then called the National Council for One Parent Families (now Gingerbread).

In spite of the fact that I became a Married Mother again in 2001, I remain President of Gingerbread, a superb campaigning organisation for single parents and their children.  Unfortunately, their work is as necessary as ever today, in a recession much worse than the one I faced when I returned to the UK in the 90s.

According to a Gingerbread survey in 2011, 87% of single parents think there is a stigma around single parenthood that needs to be challenged and one in three say that they have personally experienced it.  I find the language of ‘skivers versus strivers’ particularly offensive when it comes to single parents, who are already working around the clock to care for their children.  Such rhetoric drains confidence and self-esteem from those who desperately want, as I did, to get back into the job market.

A statement by a government minister late last year that ‘people who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks – they’ve got least to lose’ speaks to a profound disconnect with people struggling to keep their heads above water.  In some cases – and I was once one of those cases – what you might lose is enough food to eat, a roof over your head: the fundamentals of life and existence, magnified a million-fold when it is your child’s health and security you stand to lose.

In the midst of all this,  a further uncertainty is looming large for families already on the brink: the spectre of universal credit, the government’s flagship reform of the welfare system.  Already Gingerbread is highlighting serious concerns.  It’s all in the detail: the gaps in childcare provision for many of the poorest families, single parents under 25 to lose vital support for their children, the harsh truth that more single parent families will lose than gain under the new system – including many  who  work.  This detail becomes hugely important if it’s the difference between eating three meals a day or going without.  

Meanwhile the government mantra that work is the best route out of poverty is ringing increasingly hollow, with nearly 1 in 3 children whose single parent works part-time still growing up in poverty. Rather than focusing on ever more ‘austerity measures’, it’s investment in single parent employment that will allow single parents to work their own way out of poverty and secure real savings from the welfare bill.  Nothing outlandish: affordable childcare , decent training, employers embracing flexible hours, and a long, hard look at low pay. I certainly identify with the results of a survey among single parents conducted last year which revealed that childcare costs remain the biggest barrier to work, closely followed by a shortage of flexible jobs: exactly the problems I faced when Jessica was young.

Government has the potential to change the lives, not just of single parents, but of a generation of children whose ambition and potential must not be allowed to dissipate in poverty.   In the meantime, I would say to any single parent currently feeling the weight of stereotype or stigmatization that I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life.  Yes, I got off benefits and wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother, but nothing makes me prouder than what Jessica told me recently about the first five years of her life: ‘I never knew we were poor.  I just remember being happy.’

Join the Gingerbread campaign to Make it work for single parents today, and help push for realistic policy changes that will help single parents find decent jobs that provide for their families.

Photography by Debra Hurford Brown. © J.K. Rowling 2012.

Comments

RobynLindsay avatar
RobynLindsay
07 May 2014 16:03

the government minister of the time singing a merry ditty about ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue.’ - While I disagree with this perception, as a non-parent (and please forgive me for chipping in here) it seems to me that, at least in this county, that is the only way to get onto the housing list! I remember at one point, I rang our local council to ask for advice on housing and what help I may have been entitled to (the girl I was renting with had put in an offer on a house, leaving me rather in the lurch and unable to find an affordable house or flat to rent) and was told that as I work full time and earn over the threshold (whatever that threshold may be,,,) and have no dependants that I would, until the day I was sat out on the streets homeless, be at the bottom of the list, and even then they couldn't guarantee that they would be able to help me - This after I explained the situation and the exact date that I would be homeless from! And when I rather lost my temper and said that if I then went out and got pregnant, would they help me then, you can guess what the answer was. So while I disagree with this view completely and utterly, you have to admit, that when they are basically ignoring anyone who *isn't* a single parent, it will be almost impossible for this view to change.

nixmiller avatar
nixmiller
23 February 2014 20:05

Dear JK, It is truly wonderful that you have stuck your neck out and created this site for the benefit of single parents. There really is so much stigma and it is a tough job bringing up a child solo. I too did not choose this role for myself, but I believe that through the hard times, the blood, sweat and tears, it has rewarded me beyond measure in terms of the unique and fabulous relationship that I have with my daughter, and as you mentioned, I am very proud of what we have achieved together (despite all the barriers abd walls that I have had to kniock down in the process). My daughter has just turned 16, and I have been on my own with her since she was 5. Her father has paid £23 per week ever since he went off with the 18 year old that he left us for (the maintenance has never increased) and the last eleven years has been incredibly tough both emotionally and financially. Being both the bread winner and the parent is a very tall order, and I believe that society really doesn't understand the level of plate spinning that is required in order to bring up a child solo. Children need a great deal of time and energy from their primary carers and this is hard to achieve when you are also the bread winner. When my husband left us I had just taken a career break to re-train (or rather to get the education that I didn't get because I was screwed up as a kid ... my father sexually abused me ... then my new step-father abused me too ... but I am pleased to say that I managed to secure my biological father's conviction), and so I had to make the difficult decision about whether to go back to the office or to continue with my quest of re-shaping my life and re-writing my ugly past. I am pleased to say that I continued with college, then university to do a degree in criminology/social policy and then university again to do a PGCE in RE to train as a teacher so that my job could fit in with my daughters life (and then I thought that I could be the best mum that I could be, giving her the time that she required). It's all good because I am now in the final stage of my NQT year (3 months and I'm fully qualified), buy my God it has been tough!! To get through college and uni I had lots of cleaning and ironing jobs which I did simply because it meant that I could take Daisy with me. I also washed up in a pub and Daisy used to help me there (thanks to the lovely landlady) and that christmas we had extra money for presents. The barriers that our government do not address are so disabling for single parents, and only feeds the stigma further. When I was at Uni I had to take Daisy with me, and she would sit in lecture theatres and colour in bless her :-) But, what it has done is instilled in her a very strong work ethic. She has seen and been a part of the cleaning jobs, the mountains of ironing that I had to do to make any extra money, and she has even washed up herself at the tender age of ten. She has just turned 16 and she has just received her English Literature GCSE exam result ... A star!! And she also has a A for Science too! She is predicted 2 or 3 A stars, and 5 A's for her GCSE's. Not bad for the child of a piss poor single parent eh! I am soo proud of her. She has just hear that she has got in to a very good college, and she is going to study Philosophy, English Literature, Psychology and Classics. She has written a book (though she is very shy about it) and she writes a fan fiction blog online ... and today she has started to write a piece for a competition (she is desperate for the top prize of £1000 ). #veryproudmumindeed!!! Sorry, I have rather gone off on a tangent, but I wanted to say that your article really resonated with me, and I whole-heartedly agree that our society is just desperately and very damagingly still unwilling to address the barriers that are created for single parents. I hope that this facility is really helping our community of single parents, and that together, we can break down these walls of discrimination and free single parents from these very frustrating barriers. Thank you! Nix

daisy246 avatar
daisy246
19 October 2013 14:25

When I read the article it made me cry it is so recognizable. I live on the Canary Islands. Since my ex left the Island after our break up, I have been cleaning up the mess he left behind. Because I used to be self employed I had to do it on my own power because I do not have any rights for support. It was a hard struggle not to loose everything. I could not proceed with my business because I could not combine it with my 2 girls. I rented out my bar and looked for jobs. A payroll job is impossible because the working hours are till 21.00 and the costs of childcare are as much as I earned. So I found jobs without payroll combined with the rent I have a more than well income to get by and I am proud of that. Now I am so far that I can look in the future again and found a nice affordable house to buy for us. A new beginning. The only thing I asked for was a mortgage for the house I have seen. Which will lower my monthly costs with 200€ a month.. The reason I will not get a mortgage is because my income is not payroll income and most of all.....I m a single mother!!! A male who earns less does get the same mortgage. It feels like a slap in the face. I have come so far without any help and now I just feel so discriminated and sad I have not felt in all the years fighting for survival. It is like we are not allowed to grow.

phayth avatar
phayth
18 October 2013 21:56

Firstly i'd like to thank J.k.rowling for her honesty and passion...we never forget our roots although its understandable why some may try when faced with anger and resentment....the truth is it seems no matter hard people work in this modern society, we just can't quite manage ...naturally those on benefits are accused of draining economic resources.Government like this attitude and even enforce it by highlighting benefit fraudsters and the growing numbers of single parents putting both in the same boat...naturally hard working families who are feeling more than a pinch allow themselves to get sucked in ....meanwhile politicians take out 2nd morgages have holiday homes abroad, drive 2 cars and have children in private schools.Unfortunately its not the government who will reform and make changes for the good of everyone, its mainstream society...I love my country and hate watching as the government take chunk after chunk out of it. I am a single parent on benifits , choose not to work because I have the right to stay at home and take care of my 2 young children..i choose not to have a childminder and i will not be bullied into thinking that im a bad parent/person because of it...I don't see myself as a scrounger, I am a single parent who considers parenthood to be top of her agenda...Not all of us are lucky enough to find success as J.K has but together we must stand and say "we will not be bullied for choosing to take care of our children" regardless of what situation put us on this course... Thanks for reading

1507jaw avatar
1507jaw
25 September 2013 12:24

I loved this article as I have been a single mum for 7 years now, and since I left my partner, I put myself through university and in 2011 quit my job and became a single mum on benefits. I took the plunge because I decided I wanted a better life for myself and my child and I believed that the ideas I had for a company would work. After just 18 months of business my company won Social Vision in 2012 and I've just got through to the finals of the North West's Enterprise Vision Awards for Inspirational Woman of the Year and New Business of the Year. With all the success of the company I can now finally come off benefits I would not have done all of that if I had still been with my ex and also being on the bread line has allowed me to design programmes that give parents cost effective things to do outdoors with their children. I am so grateful that we live in a country that allowed me to get benefits to support myself and my child as it allowed me to pursue my dreams. I stayed in a relationship for 2 years because I feared the stigma of being a single mother, but in all honesty it was the best decision I ever made. I found myself and an inner strength I never knew I had and I am proud to be a good role model for my daughter.

Yvette_3657 avatar
Yvette_3657
21 September 2013 19:20

I was at a parents evening at my sons school, when the Head started to read out a letter from a teacher to a single mother, I felt wow, single mums are getting recognition, but then in the next sentence he had to qualify her single parent status by saying her husband had been killed in the war. As if that sanitised it. Does it matter how she became a single parent. How ever we arrive there the struggle is still the same, but it seems that her loosing her husband makes her more 'respectable'.

SharronP avatar
SharronP
19 September 2013 10:25

I have been a single parent for most of the last 24 years(I'm bringing up my grandson now, it never ends ;)), but I am still working to get out of poverty. I now earn £24k as a Programmer/IT Trainer but whilst this seems like a good wage I am still on the cusp of the Tax credit system, it seems no matter what I do I cannot climb out of the pit. My only hope is that when my other grandchildren (years from now, I hope) i will be able to offer them more than I have been able to give my children. I know its not about money but we are struggling on a daily basis for fuel, food and utilities these take away their happy mum!

SoSoMalibu avatar
SoSoMalibu
18 September 2013 21:24

I needed to read this! Feeling more inspired now! Starting my HNC applied biology course shortly to better mine and my sons life and I am so looking forward to looking back and feeling proud!

Lorraine_7508 avatar
Lorraine_7508
18 September 2013 20:56

Great article, needs to go public. Finding work within school hours and /or childcare has been my main barrier. Working Grandparents/family or living too far away is another. We are stigmatised, rather than the absent parent who only parents some weekends. Schools should be open ( but not teaching) earlier / later as a matter of course, so we know our children are safe. I thought there was some legislation about that ?? I am a single parent ( divorced), working as a TA in school hours for a pittance, studying with OU for a Maths degree to become a Maths tutor - I won't be able to teach (or even train to teach) in schools because secondary schools close even earlier 'there is NO after school supervision for 11 year olds. !! And it all goes round again!! Its tough for single parents male or female!!

Lizzy76 avatar
Lizzy76
18 September 2013 20:43

I saw a link to this piece in a newspaper and I was curious to read more, being a single parent myself. I just want to say I've never left a comment before on an article but I felt compelled to register and share my thoughts. I've been a single parent to my 15 yr old daughter right from the start really and it's been really tough I put myself through uni and I am now considered as a professional... I am not on a great wage and we still struggle but I like my job it's tough working full time from the beginning.... It ages you! I've never talked about being a single parent but I do agree that there is discrimination from colleagues and even friends... Things like oh you know what social housings like and then they say oh... Not yours though or similar remarks about single parents... But they always say that of course I'm not like that! Still very hurtful... The school (catholic) insist on calling me mrs when they know I'm unmarried. You do just accept it but I so feel incredibly marginalised even now I guess. I found the article a true account of how I feel too, on the face of it things have improved since the early days with a bare flat and worn out stuff( not much tho) but.... I'm very proud of what I've done and my great daughter. If things improve ill never be judgemental toward others and never take anything for granted. Very inspirational thanks JK :)

giraffe8 avatar
giraffe8
18 September 2013 20:27

Such a inspiration. Thank you.

leveller avatar
leveller
18 September 2013 20:17

This made me cry from start to finish. I rescued myself and my son from a violent father but have always been made to feel not quite good enough like thousands of others. When at a toddler group I was asked "do you know who his father is"!! and after years of college courses and working as a special needs teaching assistant have been asked when I'm going to get a 'real' job. My son is now almost 13 and I scrape together £200 a term bus fare to send him to a fantastic school in the next county but still people look down on us and their regular condecending comments say so..I am proud of my clever,well mannered lovely son but still feel 'not quite good enough' and the government seems determined to pull us down further. Well written and exactly as it is.

Clairebearmoo avatar
Clairebearmoo
18 September 2013 20:00

I don't even know where to start in telling you how grateful I am for this article. sometimes in life, we come across profound words that can change the way one views the world. Reading this, I saw my life through a child's eyes. You see, my children know we are 'poor'. I say poor, I don't think of us as poor because we have a roof over our heads, we have food on the table, but that doesn't detract from the fact that I want our situation to change. I find more and more frequently that I am having to tell the children that I can't afford this and I can't afford that. We do better than some on benefits but that's only because my son is in receipt of DLA. I would not hesitate to go out and work if I could, but the fact is, I can't just make that kind of decision. More and more frequently there are stories in the news about cuts that are going to affect people just like me: a single mum, bringing up her children, AND on state benefits. The stigma doesn't just stretch to the stereotype of being a single mum; it surpasses that and now stretches toward anyone on benefits. For some of us, it's a necessary evil. I am back in studies, trying to better myself and push myself toward a career, but even that isn't recognised as a positive by some. I hate the words, 'I cannot afford to do that this week.' I hate the fact that my eleven year old son wants to go out and get a job just so he can help me out. However, your article made me realise something very important. It was Jessica's words about never feeling poor and only remembering being happy. This is what I need to change. For too long I've let stigma and circumstances bring us down as a family and if that's how your young daughter viewed your situation, then I can make sure my children see life in much the same way. Thank you.

Jehefinner avatar
Jehefinner
18 September 2013 17:49

I think the biggest misconception is that all single parents are getting huge handouts and freebies. My ex was stunned to find out the children don't get free school meals, because after all, I'm a single parent, I get "benefits". But like so many other lone parents, I work, not full time, because I'm the only adult in my house, so the responsibility for all the shopping, cooking, housework and laundry falls to me, and evenings and weekends are for reading school books, doing homework and actually spending time with my children, not ignoring them whilst I rush around with a vacuum cleaner, or drag them around a supermarket. Add to this mix that I am on my way to joining yet another despised social group; the disabled (I have a degenerative joint condition, as yet I'm still able to work, 10 years from now I may not be able to) and you have a situation where full-time work is simply not possible. And heres the really big issue, even if I did work full time (meaning my children spent every morning and afternoon in childcare, and all day on school holidays) I'd still not earn enough to be able to support us. My salary, even if I doubled my working hours, would still not cover my rent, bills and clothing/food expenses. How ridiculous is that?? Even if I worked 45 a hours a week, I'd still need Tax Credits and Housing Benefit to get by. And that's all we do: get by. We aren't hungry, I manage to budget well enough to do "fun things" with my children, buy birthday presents and so on, but we are by no means living a life of ease. As this winter approaches I find myself wondering how long I can leave it before the heating needs to go on, and if I can afford to put it on at all. But no matter what I do, we are Scroungers. Living off The State. A burden on The Tax Payer (of which I'm one, oh the irony!) Thank you JK Rowling, for making so many points, so beautifully.

tegank2504 avatar
tegank2504
18 September 2013 17:27

Your ending brought a tear to my eye thinking of my own and my brother's childhood with our wonderful single mother of the nineties era! Now I am a single mother of 21, with a wonderful son and yet 20 years later, the stigma still remains. I get the looks and stares with the label of 'young girl gets knocked up down a nightclub' rather than 'young woman forced away from her work and home to have baby due to ex-fiance's inability to cope'. I was fortunate enough to have my wonderful family to support me throughout pregnancy and raising a child, however I still needed the financial support of benefits, with the hopes of returning to education (already educated, need refresher) and prospering for myself and for my son. I think you have touched upon some great points that do not necessarily fall under the bracket of 'single parent'; but more 'average person in Britain'. If only the Government could understand that maybe improving working contracts above zero-hour, increasing the living wage in line with inflation, deflating the extortionate rents/mortgage repayments, etc, they would find less people claiming these much needed benefits to top up incomes so that families can feed themselves and improve the general well-being of the country. Most people would be happy to earn enough to pay for the roof over their heads and feed their families without intervention and leaving the benefits for the original intentions of being claimed when the proverbial sh** hits the fan as a support to get back on one's feet. Hopefully the MP's and ministers will start to realise this rather than sneering and jeering at those more vulnerable to the cream of Upper class at the top running the country like a 18th century work-house. I really hope your article gets all the positive and due attention it deserves.

samscokai avatar
samscokai
18 September 2013 12:38

Nice article, I'm a single mother to three boys, living on benefits liking to get off them. I don't understand why the government doesn't turn all schools into out of hour childcare, at reasonable rates non profit making just enough to cover food and staff wages, half of which ( the staff) could most probably be made up of out of work parents of children attending that school. The premises and provisions are already in place to run this and parents would be able to drop kids off 7am till 7pm (or something similar) and know that there kids are looked after for the duration of their working day. Please can you tell those in power to get this set up a.s.a.p and start in esh winning. County Durham, hehe . Best wishes , karen

Alison_1633 avatar
Alison_1633
18 September 2013 09:37

Dear JK, I think this statement is totally amazing. You have hit each every nail, clearly on the head, of the coffin that the government would so like to close on single parents and each nail represents a key factor of single parent life. With the new government rules to employment and benefits and housing, their changes breed nothing more than, more poverty, more discrimination, more stigma and less opportunity for single parents to be treated equally and diminish our rights to evaluate the same choices (as married mothers) over their lives and those of their children. Perhaps more so if you are over 25.

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