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Ann Bradley

A burden on single mothers

Single mothers, we're told, are a burden on society. They are blamed for rising crime, falling
standards of education and general fecklessness and immorality. The increasing number of one-parent families has been described as a national scandal by that most intolerant of organisations, Family and Youth Concern.

It's important for the establishment to hold on to the principle that families need a father and a mother. Those who believe the family to be 'the bedrock of society' need to make sure that we understand that a family (like a dog) is for life. If society can't depend on us all individually to 'look after our own' - our partners, our children, our parents - things start to get difficult.

In a traditional family there is no question of who cares for sick or aged relatives, who takes the kids to and from school and who makes sure there is something in the fridge for tea. But with the 'one-parent family' things are rather different - with two parents there is at least the possibility of sharing the responsibilities of parenthood - even if that potential is seldom realised. In a single parent family everything falls into one person's lap. And if that one parent can't manage, the state must foot the bill.

In one sense those crusty old reactionaries in the pro-family organisations have got a point when they claim that children from single parent families are disadvantaged. It is often the case that single parent families are poorer. If there's only one parent with the potential to earn an income - and often that parent is too burdened with parental responsibilities to work outside the home - they are bound to be less well-off.

It is often the case that children of single parents are behind at school. If mum is trying to fit all the housework into the time between arriving home from work and falling exhausted into bed she may not be up to helping with the homework. And it's also the case that the children of one-parent families pay more visits to doctors - probably because a working mum can't afford to have a child off school for a minute longer than necessary.

But all these things tell us about the quality of society, rather than about the quality of single mothers. They reveal the extent to which society relies on a two-parent family and expose the meagre character of the support services that exist outside of it.

If children received an adequate education in schools they wouldn't need to rely on their parents to teach them to read, and if there were adequate welfare benefits single parents wouldn't be financially dis-advantaged. The conclusion I draw from the problems faced by single mothers is that capitalist society is unable to provide the support that single mothers need. It is society that is inadequate, not single parents.

Nevertheless Family and Youth Concern take a different view, they believe we are entering a cycle of degeneration. The children of the sixties, argues Valerie Riches, are the single parents of today's delinquents, and today's delinquents will produce the single parents of tomorrow. Consequently John Patten is already being earbashed by women in high lacy collars about the need to introduce moral education into the national curriculum. They want to see discussions on 'family responsibilities' and 'respect' replace the already pathetic provision for sex education.

Seventy years ago the 'moral right' developed all kinds of inventive theories about why all manner of delinquency, including marital violence or breakdown, ran in families. It was, they argued, in the genes. Today the genetic theory has been replaced by the notion that people carry the values they learn from their parents into their own relationships. So, if your mum and dad were respectful and loving you assimilate this as normal behaviour and have well-balanced relationships yourself. If, on the other hand, they beat the hell out of each other, your own chances of a violent marriage are increased. Moral education is seen as a way to reinforce the positive values of 'familial respect' and 'parental example'.

It makes you wonder how they explain the recent shenanigans in the House of Windsor, which are revealing one of the most comprehensive family breakdowns imaginable. Out of four kids we have one divorce, one pending divorce, one who would almost certainly like to divorce and one who's rumoured to be highly unlikely to ever be in a position to divorce. What kind of example have the Queen and Prince Philip set their offspring? Whichever way you look at it, HMQ is in the doghouse. Either she's got bad genes or she's done a lousy job of parenting.

But I don't expect we'll see very much discussion about the problems of single parenthood for the royals. Nobody is likely to claim that Princess Anne's freedom from matrimony is about to increase the burden on the state. And I doubt if anyone would make a serious argument that Fergie's kids would suffer emotional deprivation as a consequence of her separation from Andy. In truth, they probably haven't noticed much difference.

After all, if you can afford to spend £55 000 holidaying in the far east, the single mother situation is slightly different from that faced by those you meet at the Tesco checkout. But let's face it, when Family and Youth Concern talk about single parent families being a burden on society, they are not referring to those who have sufficient income (thanks, in Fergie's case, to state handouts) to maintain their kids in the manner to which they have been accustomed.

It is curious really. While the ordinary single mothers around us bear the stigma of being labelled a 'burden on society', nobody questions the burden of the royals. I'm not suggesting that Anne and Fergie should be under scrutiny for kicking out men I wouldn't share a cup of coffee with. I think they should be under scrutiny just for being royals. If you want to find those who are really a burden on society, look no further than Buckingham Palace and its environs.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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