by Sarah Gorry – National One Parent Family Network
I was 23 years and 2 months when I became a lone parent. My daughter was a cuddly bundle of six month cuteness. I had spent the six months prior in a bubble of new motherhood, adapting to my new life as well as coping with post-natal depression and coming to terms with my mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61.
My life had quite literally changed overnight. I wasn’t surprised when my relationship broke down. It was on the cards. It was very apparent we weren’t compatible and it would have been near impossible to raise a child in that cold environment of walking on eggshells, being anxious and unhappy, but the life I was thrust into was a huge surprise to me.
Growing up I had a wonderful childhood. I had security. I had a stable home. I had parents who shared a deep bond, love and friendship together. I never heard my mother say we can’t afford to eat this or that. I never watched her cry or vomit when her bank account was overdrawn. My daughter’s early years were a stark contrast to my own. At my worst, my weight plummeted to 36 kilos. I would throw up as soon as I woke up. I stopped eating completely. My body was so controlled by anxiety, which I tried so hard to get rid of by making myself sick every single day. I was faced with homelessness when my landlord increased my rent and I was already struggling to pay before the increase. I spent morning, noon and night trying to find a new home to rent. It was impossible. I was struggling to feed my child and heat my home. I was living off 190 euro per week from my one parent family payment. I wasn’t receiving any maintenance for 2 years for my child and as much as they helped there was only so much my family could do. I was stuck in a poverty trap.
It was during my bleakest, lowest time that I met a group of women on a wet, miserable December afternoon in 2012 outside Dail Eireann in Dublin. They, as well as myself had gathered for a small protest after the budget was announced. That budget of 2012 changed the lives of nearly every lone parent in Ireland. Little did I know that those bunch of girls standing with placards, speaking through megaphones, would become my best friends, my biggest support and the most inspirational group of women I have ever met. Our baby, National One Parent Family was born.
We have spent the last 3 years lobbying against the disastrous cuts to one parent families, highlighting to our government they are pushing thousands of families into further poverty. 98% of lone parents are women. The cuts over the past 3 years have pushed us to the brink, we have had to abandon degrees and jobs, we have become homeless, we have battled with illness and stress and depression, all while parenting alone, while trying to give our children a happy secure life that every child so rightly deserves. To give them at times enough love and encouragement to make up for the absent parent, to play good cop/bad cop day in, day out, with no respite. On top of all this, lone parent are labeled by society.
Lazy, slut, whore, scrounger. Words I never heard in everyday vocabulary until I became a lone parent. ‘Should have kept your legs closed’ is another statement thrown so easily at us. I couldn’t believe how society viewed lone parents and I was shocked that I was constantly stereotyped. I wanted to scream so many times to people ‘Come live with me’ to see how they would manage in my shoes. I yearned for the people of Ireland to stand with us not against us, but I soon realised that would never be the case. We got ourselves into this situation they would say, so nobody is going to help you out.
The idea that so many people questioned why we didn’t use contraception was shocking, that they thought all of our children were unplanned mistakes. There is a common misconception that the majority of lone parents are teenagers, when in fact teenagers only make up 1.5% of one parent families in Ireland (One family 2010). People probe us as to why we allowed ourselves get pregnant, as if we all had drunken one night stands down an alley way and didn’t know our children’s father. Yes that happens, its life, we should support anyone’s choice in how they want to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and respect their decision but it’s certainly not the case that most children in one-parent families are the result of unplanned pregnancy. The majority are parenting alone is due to a marriage or long term partnership ending, with domestic violence and psychological abuse being the 2nd biggest reason for people parenting alone, according to National One parent Family Network’s latest ongoing survey.
Over the past few weeks I gathered stories from other women about their experiences. It opened my eyes to a world even I didn’t want to believe exists. It hurt and saddened me to read my friend’s experiences. These are women I’ve known for some time, yet we have never fully divulged this information to each other, the darkness of our past, the events that led to us all to become friends, and I realised we were so much more than the labels put on us. Many of us were victims, and as hard as it is to live in poverty week in week out, every single person I asked ‘were they happier now?’ said yes. These women have ran in the middle of the night, they have sought shelter in a neighbour’s house with their children, they have fled their homes to stay in a women’s refuges. I collected stories from these women over the last month and I found it difficult to hear these accounts. I posted it on our Facebook page and I received over 100 replies when I asked, ‘How many of you experienced any type of abuse in your relationship prior to becoming a lone parent’. The results were shocking. Even for me:
‘I was, my ex was depressed too but I still dismissed that as a good excuse to rape me. I wanted to leave him well before but he actually made it easier for me by abusing me every night for a full week. I couldn’t take it anymore. I contacted women’s aid and left, my youngest child was 4’
‘Mine wasn’t physical but mental abuse. Constantly checking my phone, asking why I was smiling, he wouldn’t let me sleep and he enjoyed that’
‘I’m free 8 years now I threw him out after he tried to rape me. His abuse towards me was mental, physical and sexual. He still tries to control me now through our children’
‘Mine was 15 years of abuse, I left when my boys were 7 months and 2yrs when he took a knife at me In front of the children, I knew I had to get out’
‘I got my hand smashed and my neck sliced with a cut throat razor’
‘I went down to less than a size six and was still called fat, I breastfed for three years yet was called lazy if I didn’t have his dinner on the table at 2am, if I spoke to any other male including my father’s friends I was accused of cheating’
These are just some example’s of the many stories I received. These women are still recovering from the years of abuse, most of them left with very low self esteem and little confidence, worn down for years on end while trying to make everything right. And then to face a life of poverty and judgement after escaping from these relationships. Surely there should be better treatment than we receive right now.
Its time to ask why? Why are we victim blaming here? Why is the primary caregiver the ones who are attacked in society? We need to change how we view people parenting alone as a nation. Its time to open our eyes and minds to the true reality of what these people have gone through before you judge them.
We need proper support structures in place for people who have come to a point where they have to parent alone, lone parents countrywide are crying out for a help up not a hand out, help returning to education, training and the workforce. We should be recognised for the care we are providing for our children, not penalised for wanting a better, safer life for ourselves and our children or for being abandoned and left with no support.
We are marginalised. We are name-called. We are frowned upon. We are hated. We are unfairly stigmatised.
The truth is very different, we are none of the above. We are survivors. We are brave, and we are heroes, to our children and to ourselves.
Change is needed to recognise the truth behind the stereotype.