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