What a strange title for a blog post I hear you cry! Well the reason behind it will be revealed later in this post, so now you have to keep reading, right??
The inspiration for this post came from reading an article on a brilliant website called The Pool. Co-founded by Lauren Laverne, it’s an intelligent mix of news, politics, fashion, food and much more which is easy to dip in and out of and always contains interesting content, written for women by women. If you’ve not come across it yet I’d thoroughly recommend taking a look. There is also a Facebook page and one morning a post popped up which immediately caught my attention. The post was a link to an article entitled “the damage done by demonising single mothers” but what initially drew me in was the quote from Tony Parsons used as the lead in to the link. From his novel Man and Boy, it simply stated, “the single parent is the one who stayed.” It seems rather obvious doesn’t it but I think that sentiment gets forgotten when single parents (and for parents read mothers, as according to the article 91% of single parent households are headed by women), and their offspring are routinely singled out by society at large and politicians in particular as being the source of all that is wrong with society today.
The article got me thinking about my own experiences of being a single mother, thoughts which I’d like to share with you here.
First of all let me tell you that it’s bloody hard. Really bloody hard. It’s lonely, exhausting, spirit-sapping, demoralizing, financially crippling. I could go on but you get the picture. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision on my part and it’s not a lifestyle choice I’d recommend. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. I was young and stupid and the day my 18 year old self went home to tell my mum and dad I was pregnant is one I can still clearly remember 33 years later! It’s all the more memorable as my dad, who I actually thought would kill me on the spot, took the news far better than my mum, who was completely unable to hide her total disappointment in me and barely spoke to me for the next few months.
It’s no exaggeration to say I was terrified when I gave birth to Lucy in November 1984. Not just about the physical act of giving birth but also about the future and how the hell I was going to take care of this beautiful little person I had somehow created. (Well she actually bore more than a passing resemblance to ET at this time but she improved with age!) I wasn’t even a single mum at this point. My boyfriend had said he would stand by us and that he did. Well until he met a married woman with two kids and left us when Lucy was 8 months old, three weeks after my mum had died really unexpectedly. Now this isn’t the place to name names or apportion blame, and I’m not asking for sympathy. It was a long time ago and to be honest I’m over it. I was over it a long time ago. Shit happens and somehow you just have to get out of bed in the morning, put one foot in front of the other and just pray you make it through that day so that you get a chance to try and make a bit better job of it the next day, and the day after that. Who knows, one day you may wake up not feeling scared of absolutely everything. (Spoiler alert. As a parent that day may never actually arrive!!)
Now I’m not afraid to admit that motherhood didn’t come naturally to me. I well remember the day when Lucy was a few months old and I popped down the shop to get something for my mum. When I got home and she asked me if I’d forgotten something. I thought she meant the bread but she actually meant the baby, found still fast asleep in her pram outside Gateway’s supermarket where I’d left her. Yes in those days we did leave sleeping babies in their prams outside the shops! I remember the first load of washing I did in my “new” twin tub washing machine. Remember them? I put a duster in with the load of terry towelling nappies I used as I couldn’t afford disposable nappies, then had to hang out a line of perfect yellow nappies for the whole world to see! It took a bit of getting used to, this motherhood lark. But of course it wasn’t a lark. It was real, and terrifying and I didn’t know my arse from my elbow most of the time.
After six months living in a “halfway house”, six months that were so awful I’ve pretty much blocked it from my memory, I was then given what every single mother dreams of and aspires to right – my own council flat! The last word in luxury it wasn’t. One bedroom, damp and up two flights of stairs. Sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture donated by friends it was to become my home for the next 6 years. Two of the defining moments of my life happened in that flat, one involving peanut butter! Craving some peanut butter on toast and unable to get the lid off the jar I completely lost it and threw the jar so hard at the wall it smashed to bits. Then one day, just before our first Christmas there, I opened the door to find someone from the local Lions organisation with a box of Christmas goodies for us. Someone had nominated me as a worthy cause for their charity. As grateful as I was I can still remember the feeling of absolute mortification that came over me, and I vowed then that I’d always do my best to be self-sufficient, never needing anyone to open a jar and always able to provide for us, no matter how hard times got. If I needed something done I’d do it myself…..or ask my dad, but that was allowed!
I worked part-time at a local community/arts centre where I could take Lucy with me on the days when my dad or other friends couldn’t look after her for me. It was part of a government scheme which I can’t remember the name of now, but you were allowed to work for I think up to about 25 hours a week and still receive a small salary top-up and get housing benefit. It was a struggle but it was important to be working. In those days childcare meant being able to dump your kids with practically anyone who would have them! If you did have to pay a childminder it wasn’t so exorbitant that it didn’t make it worthwhile going to work, which is the main reason why so many young single mums can’t go to work these days. Childcare is so damn expensive that it really isn’t worth their while, and who can blame them.
Of course still being young and still being stupid I inevitably found myself pregnant again at the age of 23. This time I thought my dad really would kill me. He was so disappointed, especially as by that time things were looking up. I was working full-time, Lucy and I had even had a holiday in Gran Canaria and the future was beginning to look a lot less bleak than it had 4 years previously. But this time I didn’t panic, even though I was still on my own. Something had changed in me. Although it was a far from ideal situation, this time I knew I would cope. I was stronger and more confident in my abilities, although it might just have been the realisation that whatever happened couldn’t possibly be any worse than what had gone before!
My best friend Debbie took me to hospital and stayed with me while I gave birth to the gorgeous Sarah (well, think more Yul Brynner but luckily she too improved with age!). I was out of hospital the next day and started a new job 2 weeks later, working for a friend of a friend doing the admin for his business while he was out on the road selling something or other. He gave me the use of one of his cars so I could get to work, about a 40 minute drive from home, so I’d put Sarah in her carry cot on the back seat of the car, drop Lucy at a friend’s house who took her to playschool for me, and go to work 5 days a week. Yes in those days you could just put a baby in a carry cot on the back seat of the car, strap the seat belt round it and hope it didn’t slide around too much when you went round a corner!!
I didn’t stay there too long and eventually found a job in the village where I lived. By this time Lucy was at school and I was beginning to think I should try and do something more with my life. I left school at 16 with a handful of mediocre ‘O’ Levels and no real career plans or ambition. One day I found myself at Alton College with the girl who used to babysit for me. She too hadn’t gone to college so was looking at night classes. I just went to keep her company but whilst there picked up a prospectus about King Alfred’s College in Winchester (now Winchester University). Flicking through I saw they accepted “non-traditional” students – those without A Levels and mature students – you just needed to have completed an “Access” course which would give you the qualifications required to apply for a place. I then discovered that Alton College ran such a course and there was an open evening coming up in the next couple of weeks. Excitedly I decided to go and sign up but when I got there the course tutor told me it was full and I’d have to wait for next year’s intake. We had a really good chat about my interests and why I wanted to go to college but I returned home disappointed. Much to my amazement though the tutor rang me the next day, saying she’d got permission to open up an extra place as she’d been so impressed with our chat the night before! I think that’s probably the first time I felt that someone actually believed in me, had seen some potential and was willing to give me a chance. So off I went for the next 2 years, working part-time and studying part-time. I’d initially planned to apply to King Alfred’s to do a teacher training course, but after a couple of months I realised that I wasn’t as stupid as I’d previously thought and was actually quite good at studying! History had always been my favourite subject at school so a BA in History at Portsmouth Polytechnic looked like the most likely option, that is until I saw a prospectus for Royal Holloway, University of London (or Royal Holloway and Bedford New College as it was known in those days). The photo of the glorious Founders Building on the front of the prospectus had me completely spellbound. Now that looked like a proper university and after rather sheepishly asking the admissions guy if “people like me” could go there, and being told that anyone with the right qualifications could apply, there was nowhere else I was ever going to go.
Lucky enough to be offered a place to read medieval and modern history, and fortunate enough to get the required grades in my Access course, in September 1993 I started on what would become one of the hardest, but also one of the most rewarding, journeys of my life. Studying full-time is hard, especially with two small children. I was that strange mother who sat in the playground reading Plato whilst waiting for the girls to finish school. I was the completely disorganised mother who sent them back to school a day too early after the holidays. I had to work in a pub 3 lunchtimes and 2 nights a week just to earn enough money to put food on the table. It took me 5 years to complete my degree as one very short-lived marriage and the death of my dad during my second year completely derailed me for a time. But I went back and finished and got a 2:1, which I’d never have thought possible when I first started.
And you know what? Life gets better. I got a good job working in the City, although the commuting got me down and I left after a couple of years. I cycled across Cuba for charity. I had a long-term relationship during which time I was able to see a bit of the world. And even though that relationship ended over 8 years ago and plunged me back into the rather terrifying world of renting and living from hand to mouth every month, I’m happy. For the first time in my life I think I’m finally happy being in my own skin. I even went back to Royal Holloway in 2012 and spent two years part-time getting my MA in Public History at the age of 49!
My girls have grown up to be incredible, beautiful, strong (some would say bloody-minded) women who I couldn’t be more proud of. Despite their less than perfect start in this world they are happy, confident and make it easy to forget all the hard times. Lucy is a terrific mother to my gorgeous, confident, funny, Star Wars obsessed grandson Charlie and Sarah lives in the States studying for her history PhD. Did I mention how proud I am of them both!
I’m conscious this post has turned into a rather long and boring autobiographical tale which I’m sure no-one is really interested in.
What I did want to say though is that even though it may not seem like it at the time, becoming a single mother isn’t the worst thing in the world that can happen to you. At the end of the day you only really have two choices. You can either sink or you can swim. I’ve been found in the deep end, floundering and gasping for air on many occasions but ultimately I’ve always managed to claw my way to the surface. And you can too. You just have to believe in yourself. Failing that find someone else who believes in you and make sure they keep telling you that on a regular basis. A human flotation device if you will!! I’ve never had any confidence in myself or my abilities but I have always had amazing people in my life who do and they’re the ones who pick me up, brush me off and send me back off into the world again ready to fight another day.
Find something that motivates you. With me it was simply wanting to be able to stick two fingers up at all those who wrote me off as being just another single mum, to their mind the old slapper of the village who was destined to become just another statistic along with my deadbeat children, as they would inevitably turn out to be. It doesn’t matter what motivates you, as long as something does.
And the title of this blog? Well, my dad once said of me, “Sue. What can you say about Sue? Well she falls flat on her face more times than she wins, but at least she tries.” I’m still falling flat on my face on a regular basis, but I sure as hell keep trying!