I’ve talked to loads of people raising their children in tricky formulations: alone; in blended families; co-parenting with an estranged spouse; going through legal battles. They are funny, resilient, full of faith, dry, determined and utterly impressive. Our internal vision of single parenting is miserable, but with two million single parents in the UK, the range of experience is bound to be vast. And far more positive than the stereotype.
Accepting the help
The Church’s response to single parenting is also very different from what it was just 20 years ago. Not only are some people actively choosing to parent alone, but many of those who find themselves thrust into single parenting unwillingly are discovering acceptance and support like never before.
I was overjoyed that my own church didn’t show any signs of judgement about my situation, though that didn’t stop me feeling different. I remember most clearly when I had my daughter dedicated. I took a whole tribe of friends to stand on the stage with me, but the vicar decided it should be parents only. So I stood alone while the other parents stood together in pairs. It was unintentional, but it was a moment when I felt most alone.
“My own church didn’t show any signs of judgement about my situation, though that didn’t stop me feeling different”
Kate was overwhelmed by the love of the people in her church when she was left with a 4-week-old baby. Everyone rallied around without being asked. The most pressing need in those early days was financial: “Meals started reappearing like they had when she was born. I had envelopes of money appear. At the coffee shop, someone put £100 behind the till for me. Tesco cards came through the door. So many people gave me various bits and pieces of money.”
A few years on from that difficult time, her advice to other single parents is to make sure you do all the things you would do if you had a partner so you don’t sell yourself or your child short. “Don’t be afraid to use babysitters,” she says. “It took me a long time to realise it was OK to have someone look after [Holly] for an hour.”
Kate was determined to enjoy the rituals of birthdays and Christmases, even alone: “I became a single mum in November. People asked me: ‘How come you’re still excited about Christmas?’ Holly was only going to have one ‘First Christmas’. I wasn’t going to miss out on that. Yeah, things are going wrong, but don’t miss out on things with your kid because of it. You can’t go back and do that again.”
Kate also braved a holiday for single parents, ‘a Single Parent Takeover’ at Barnutopia in Shropshire: “There was a part of me going, ‘What am I doing with a bunch of strangers?’ but everybody was in the same situation. We didn’t spend the week moaning and groaning. Everybody shared. It was so lovely to sit with a bottle of wine around the fire with people who just got some of the background mess.” Kate, along with most of the others, has already rebooked for next year.
Reconsidering the priorities
Another surprising plus to starting out on a single parent journey is that it becomes a time to re-evaluate things: to look again at our faith, and to redefine how we’re expressing it. The vision of a what a ‘successful Christian life’ looks like is perhaps informed more by nostalgia than by the reality of dynamic living in the 21st Century, and being forced to confront this can be life-transforming. There was certainly some pain involved in the process, but it ended up being pain with a purpose. Being a single parent doesn’t have to define you, but the vulnerability it brings can draw you closer to God and free you to be yourself more honestly.
Kate is taking the idea of what single parenting as a Christian means a step further: “I’m thinking of getting together with other parents who are doing the Christian parenting thing alone (who are married but whose partners don’t come to church). We’re all raising our children alone in faith and need the same kind of support.”
Embracing the positives
Laura, a single mum of one, found that being proactive and positive helps: “Don’t isolate yourself. Make sure that you reach out even if you feel embarrassed or helpless,” she says. “I found that friends in couples tended not to invite me to things because it felt awkward. But you need to get past that and tell people you want to be included. You can take the initiative and set up groups yourself. There are many other single parents in your situation.”
There are also genuine pluses to doing it alone. For some lucky ones, it’s that they share weekend care with a non-resident parent and get oases of time off to recuperate, which couples rarely get. For me, this means that I can genuinely engage in church services without wondering what my daughter is up to. I can spend time fully and wholeheartedly with God with no distraction.
Another great thing is the specialness of the connection with your children. Lucy says: “The bond between you and your child is intense. You can make all your own decisions about how to raise them, and how to live. It can be very liberating.”
“Being a single parent doesn’t have to define you, but the vulnerability it brings can draw you closer to God and free you to be yourself more honestly”
Taking on the challenges
Of course, there are always worries. One of the weights on our shoulders is the potential impact our singleness may have on our children. Historically, there have been some appalling pieces of journalism blaming single mums, in particular, for children’s mental health problems, rises in crime, unemployment figures, housing waiting lists… the list goes on. Whether we’re alone through bereavement, relationship breakdown or choice, the thing that looms large for most of us is worrying about how it affects our children.
The Church doesn’t help much in this as most teaching, understandably, emphasises the importance of two parents and that to raise a child ‘well’ you need both parties. I have struggled with this, and have taken a non-gendered view in the end: that you definitely need more than one person to raise a child, but it doesn’t matter if they’re all of the same sex! Because of that, I’ve started fulfilling my dream of living in community with other women, and helping my daughter have a wider view of what ‘family’ can look like.
So the question is: if we’re saying that parenting alone can be good, do single parents still need help? The answer is yes; just as all parents need support at different times. The moment when this need is most acute is the point at which a person becomes a single parent. This is almost universally a traumatic and difficult time.
“That first night my boys came to stay with me was just awful,” says Samson. “I was in a flat and had managed to get most of my stuff in there, but I couldn’t get the beds in by myself. They were sitting out on the pavement. All my mates were at work. All I could think was: ‘They’re going to be sleeping on the floor. I’ve failed before I’ve started.’”
There is also a long period of social and financial adjustment for most people, and the need for assistance is real. Financial stress is a key issue for most single parents. Nearly half of children in single-parent families live in relative poverty, and many single parents receive no child maintenance.
Unfortunately, accessing the government help available can be stressful in itself. Kate laughed when I asked if HMRC had been helpful: “Attempting to get tax credits was so stressful at a stressful time anyway. It was horrendous. The baby would finally go to sleep and I didn’t have the energy to go through the paperwork to prove this, that and the other thing. You’d be on hold for an hour and a half, and they would tell you something different from the person the week before. It was a mystery to me.”
Single parenting tips
Money, loneliness and mental health issues repeatedly come up as the core negative issues experienced by single parents. So here are some tips for dealing with the pressures of doing it alone:
- Fight loneliness! Find your local Gingerbread group, stay and plays, church groups and community groups. Seek out other lone parents on online forums and scour your networks for like-minded people. Even if you have family close by, other single parents can be a real lifeline.
- Do the stuff you love. Don’t let being alone stop you from forming family traditions, going on great holidays or enjoying any given moment with your children. You may well find you can’t attend every school assembly, play or sporting event, as time is even tighter for single parents, but work out what’s really important for you and your children, and make sure that stuff happens.
- Be aware of your mental health. The transition into doing it alone, or partly alone, is really tough for most people, and you may need some additional support from your GP, family and friends, or local charities. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
- Work out your finances. It’s likely you’ll have to be frugal for some time, but it’s better to face it sooner rather than later. Get some advice on benefits, tax credits and child maintenance. The processes for all of them are fairly disheartening, but the income you could be entitled to can be life-saving.
- Don’t compare. It’s hard not to look at couples and think how much easier it is for them. But the old adage that “comparison is the thief of joy” is never truer than for a lone parent. Stay focused on the good stuff and not on the (totally imaginary) ease of other people’s lives!
Most people don’t think that being a single parent is ever going to be part of their story. But when it happens, jumping in with both feet can be a liberating experience. Embracing being a single mum has been the most positive experience of my life, and despite the occasional day spent in stretchy sportswear eating chicken nuggets, I wouldn’t change it for anything.
All names have been changed.
Pointers for churches
- Consider asking a single parent to host a house group so they can attend without finding a sitter.
- Organise babysitting so a parent can attend regular church meetings, prayer events or home groups.
- Extend a specific invitation to lone parents and their children to family events and meals which may feel unintentionally ‘couples only’.
- Think twice before commenting on the life choices of lone parents (dating, use of childcare, claiming benefits, how to spend free time). There is potential sensitivity behind these decisions.
- Consider if financial help may be needed, and how to offer it sensitively.