Guest post: I am an octopus

My friend Belinda Mellor originally wrote this piece as part of her rhetoric module at university. It has been written to be read out loud, as a speech- and I thought it was too good not to share. True food for thought. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did!

Thesis: that the vilification of single mothers is unjustified.

Allow me to tell you a little about myself.  I am an octopus. A mature single octopus; I work hard and my eight arms ensure that multi-tasking works for me.  Let me explain.  The female Giant Pacific Octopus blows clean water over its new laid eggs in order that they may survive, for the last time before it dies.  Although perhaps not quite as self sacrificing as the Giant Pacific Octopus, as a mature student and a single mother of three, I work hard.

Yet some people, even some of those in power view single parents negatively.  That is what I would like to tell you about.  I want to talk to you about my support for single parents and in particular for the nine out of ten who are single mothers.

My own experience of being a single parent began at the age of 26.  My partner and I separated after five years together, and a particularly sad time in my life was spent in the company of my three small children.  Solitary evenings sewing pump bags by candlelight were compensated for by sunny days in the park, punctuated with laughter and choral pleas for ice-cream.

But not every day is sunny.  An isolated existence together with an atmosphere of negativity can surreptitiously envelope a single mother’s identity and destroy her sense of citizenship.

The vilification of single mothers is a mistake; an act which says more about the critic than the criticised.  Single mothers are a group upon whom it is easy to lay the blame for the ills of society.  Overloaded with responsibilities, without support and frequently without means they are often unable to speak out in defence.  This public and medieval witch hunt is narrow-minded, misleading and misogynistic.   Any government which finds itself drawn to this argument should stop, look at the statistics and then take time to talk to some of the most maligned in society.  When that government speaks to those people and reports back to a nation, then perhaps, they will receive 1.5 million more votes.

From my own perspective as a single mother of three in the 1990’s I felt personally on the receiving end of John Major’s rallying cry to the masses which repeatedly implicated people in my situation as single- handedly responsible for the dire state of the nation.  An idea which had very little of course to do with his predecessor’s political encouragement of the young, upwardly mobile professional for whom money was everything and dog eat dog was ideology anthropomorphically reified.

John Major in his wisdom presented his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign in 1993, which was meant to lead Britain backwards to a time more pure, more safe, and more secure in what he called ‘Family Values’.  The idea rooted firmly in 1950’s Britain was more about the safety and surety of nostalgia.   Things certainly look better when we think back but often that is simply the human desire to privilege romance over reality.  More honestly we can look back to a time when the health benefits of smoking were proposed, when the social benefits of hanging were realised, when homosexuality was an imprisonable offence and when marital rape was not a crime but a right.

John Major was however, outed by the catalogue of sleaze thrown up by his party and later lambasted for his own affair retrospectively admitted.  ‘Back to Basics’ was discredited and became a topic of salacious media amusement but not before the antithesis of family and democracy was revealed as the ‘single mother’.

In 1996 my three small children and I survived happily on government benefits.   One of the accusations laid at the feet of single mothers on handouts is: why aren’t they working?   Let me illustrate my own experience in reply.  My weekly allowance entitled and enabled me to work for fifteen hours a week as a cleaner; a manageable position when sole responsibility for school and nursery timetabling was a work of art in itself.  After having had depression as a teenager and without any discernable skills I was on benefits in order to survive financially and to secure a stable home life for my children in their early years.

Once my youngest child started school I was able to take the college courses necessary to work towards my current degree study.  Poverty had ensured I was never in debt but I was also desperate to jump free of the revolving hamster wheel of my existence; seemingly going nowhere, every day.

Yet young women are accused of bringing about this situation on purpose simply to acquire a home.   Can it really be that simple?  Left with no educational achievements, little self esteem and zero opportunities, the place society says is rightly hers might become achievable for a disengaged young girl by simply becoming pregnant.  And if so, if, by becoming pregnant a young girl could feel like there is something she can do as opposed to her living an ineffectual existence, might she not begin her own life.  And in doing so, might she not be understood?

Society or government may wish it were not so and in such cases should create a space for education and opportunity in order that young girls might find a future for themselves which engendered more control and opportunity.

Politicians in large homes, vaulted to positions of power and autonomy by a ruling hierarchy established centuries ago, might do well to realise that life choices are often not just between good and bad but also between the better of two evils. David Cameron’s move to tax-break marriage to the tune of £150 a year might be seen as a shallow mirror in which to view his own lack of insight to shifts in society, not necessarily ruinous.

Most single parents, mothers and fathers find themselves in this position through the effects of divorce.  The Office for National Statistics states that the majority of the adult population are married but that almost half of those will divorce within ten years.  The children born within those marriages could explain the statistic which states that the proportion of children living in one parent families has more than tripled in Great Britain in the last 30 years.

Since 1971 to 2005 the amount of people living alone has more than doubled; it is a fact of a changing society that children will be brought up in single parent households and although children may fare better in multi adult families, this simply does not mean that single parents should be criticised for living in a situation requested by society.  Instead they should be supported and admired for their place in a society which has demanded and continues to demand freedom for all.

Changes taking place during the 20th century have meant greater independence for women who can now decide to live alone with or without children.  Women have always been targets for public opprobrium and continue to attract negative press; take for example women who choose to wait until they are older to have children, who are often portrayed as self serving career women.   The facts speak more clearly; the average age for giving birth shows a steady rise; in 2009 it was 29.   Similarly under attack are women who have children much later in life; fertility in the 35 – 40+ age group also continues to increase and although financially and emotionally secure their decision often attracts public angst and derision.

In a society where 15,700 civil partnerships occurred within a year of its 2005 inception and in a society where a male pop star and his husband can have a child by a surrogate mother with a donor egg, it is perhaps time that the sticky subject of disregard for single mothers is dropped like a melting ice cream on a hot summers day.

Just like the Giant Pacific Octopus I would sacrifice everything for my own three children.  They have grown into mature, caring young people studying in further education and for whom time spent together is treasured.

Having my children, on my own, has been a revelation for me; I was that girl whose life began when she had her children.  They have taught me so much and I continue to learn about myself from them.  So, if you hear narratives which state that being a single parent is marginal, not worthwhile, I hope you will think again and support those who bring up children alone.

Belinda Mellor

Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. Zoe says:

    Excellent piece. Lovely to hear. 🙂

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  2. Dee says:

    My mum used to be a single mum, who left an abusive partner when she was pregnant with my elder half-brother. She lived as a single mum until she met my dad, and had my sister and I. Now, I couldn’t imagine living without either my mum or my dad. I feel that I have really benefitted from their parenting, because they work as a team (despite minor disagreements of course). They could only do this because they love one another so deeply. I think that sometimes it is easy not to talk about love in this society, but this attitude is counterproductive because real love is the basis of every good relationship that we ever hope to have with any human being. I am proud of my beautiful mum for her efforts as a single mum but she could not repair the damage that had been done emotionally to her or to her son all by herself (although I’m happy to say that she recovered physically). Despite having a new dad my brother still suffered a lot from the fact that his paternal father constantly rejected him especially when he was younger. It took a really long time for him to get his life back on track. But it couldn’t have happened without love because otherwise none of us would have made the commitment to support him even when he hurt our feelings or made us worry about him. In fact, it was love that made us care so much in the first place. If it wasn’t for love helping us to support one another we would have all just given up, and I can’t imagine how my mother would have coped by herself. She is a very strong woman, but she’s only human like the rest of us and I believe that she would be being unfair to herself if she didn’t accept the love and support of her family who love her very, very much. She knows she is not alone, and that is why she is able to conserve this strength because she knows that we all love her at the end of the day. I agree with some of your article, maybe even most of it, but just because that ‘it is a fact of a changing society that children will be brought up in single parent households’ doesn’t mean that this is something that is necessarily positive . You yourself talk about how difficult it is to be a single mother and in fact believe that ‘children may fare better in multi adult families’. Clearly then, if you have the choice, it seems to be better not to be a single parent. And if you choose to do this then it seems to be a selfish choice, because you are doing something that you know is potentially not good for your child. I wonder if a majority of single mothers planned to be single parents? I doubt it. The problem that society has with single mothers is that they believe that it is a calculated ambition to become a burden onto their children and the state, because it is now seen as a life choice/lifestyle and so single mother= bad mother. Which, of course, is not necessarily true. I believe that people should support single parents, appreciating their efforts because parenting is difficult even within a partnership. The reality is that when you become a parent you become devoted to the wellbeing of your children, even over yourself. That’s what love is. And my mum taught me that.

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  3. Belinda says:

    Dee, I love what you say about love and I agree, it is not talked about enough if at all in our society. It is as you say the cornerstone of all our actions. I would also say that I am not advocating the rejection of two parent families, in fact I would say that that would be the zenith of family life. I myself was not lucky enought to have been brought up with my father present and neither have my children; what I am saying is that those circumstances exist and as society has moved towards this set of circumstances our support should move with it. I believe that the love and support of both parents is the ideal and I also recognise that not all of life is ideal. My youngest child was brought up with the support of his older siblings and this has had a beneficial effect; subject to the watchful eye of three older people he is more secure and more mature. It is good that your mum found love and support, that is what everybody needs. Thank you for your comments which have provoked my own thoughts of how we could talk more about love and the support it provides to achieve better things.

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  4. Julie Fisher says:

    Hi Belinda,

    It’s Julie from your rhetoric class…what a great speech, well done you. I’m doing mine on sex and age discrimination…looks like we have two femininsts in the making haha. So jealous that you’re graduating this year..wish I was. All the best and keep in touch x

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