Being a single mum in 80s Ireland put you on the fringes of society, with little or no state support and prejudices abounding. It’s time to give those women some serious credit.
Growing up in a single-parent family in the 80s in Ireland was akin to being the only gay in the village. It was still extremely rare, not something people particularly wanted to talk about, and immediately marked you out as different. The stats from the time bear it out. In 1981, only 7% of families with children under 15 were headed up by a single parent. There was no divorce (we had to wait till 1996 for that divisive struggle, “Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy” just some of the sloganeering that made no bones about who was staying with the kids), legal separation was barely in existence, and when my parents split up, the marriage ban had just been lifted.
In the 80s, being widowed was one thing – you got a pension and community support, but choosing not to be together was rogue. Before I started school, I was fairly unaware that my circumstances weren’t run-of-the-mill, but as I entered the classroom and began to form friendships I became more conscious of being different. Not only were most of my friends’ dads living at home, there was a much greater portion of mums working inside the home, something most single mothers couldn’t afford to do. There were no representations of my family dynamic in any of the schoolbooks, on any of the kid’s programmes or in any of the ads hocking Bisto or Milky Bars.
Going to other kids’ houses was like entering a different universe, where meal times were set, napkins placed, clothes folded and tea towels ironed. I was fascinated, it seemed so ordered and safe. They were living in houses their parents owned, where they were more than likely to live till they left school. (We moved 11 times before I was 12). They had male stuff around (we were an all-girl house), they were wealthier.
We forget now, but things were deeply archaic for single women parenting at that time. Trying to rent was particularly tough, I clearly remember my mom having to enlist some random male friend to pretend to be her partner in order for a landlord to feel comfortable enough to sign over a lease.Being a single mum in 80s Ireland put you on the fringes of society, with little or no state support and prejudices abounding. It’s time to give those women some serious credit. Single mums were not to be trusted.
Single mums were not to be trusted.
I have very early memories too of loathing our local bank manager, who would openly treat my mum with scorn as she tried to negotiate our overly-strapped finances while I, level to his belt, attempted to use my newly-acquired imaginary laser vision to melt his buckle and make his pants drop. Until the Credit Union came along, many women had to grapple with mostly men in grey suits who stood firmly on the side of authority, establishment, and imperiousness and what seemed to me a kind of moral superiority that belonged to another age. The Credit Union was a God-send for single mums.
They were the early pioneers, creating a social splinter group
Luckily there was a network of women, many also single parents, who became an invaluable support system to us, so this is really a love letter to them, as they truly kept our world turning. They picked each other’s kids up from school, they set up businesses, out of necessity as much as desire, that they could manage their life around. They were the early pioneers, creating a social splinter group, which, banded together, gave other single parent kids a sense of belonging and acceptance, a different idea of what was normal.
They cajoled, haggled and wrangled with the electricity and the gas board when their bills were two months overdue or managed to get extra credit in the local shop when they couldn’t make things stretch to the end of the week. They held their heads up high as they went to the parent teacher meeting alone, and fought back when they were guilt-tripped over being late for school or last in with the day trip form.
They made sure there was food on the table and an adventure down the line. They taught us about hard work and graft, and that despite lots of obstacles, being wily and resourceful could see you through. Being the kid of a single parent taught me empathy, there were days where I would be at the school gates after others had been picked up, looking hopefully for my mum’s Renault 4 to come careering around the corner. It always would, eventually, and in a strange way it made me conscious that my life was not the centre of the universe early on. Here was a woman pulling every stroke and using every last bit of energy to raise three girls under six on her own, at a time when there was no creche network or lone parent allowance.
I do still look enviously sometimes at those who grew up with two parents, happy together. That kind of male energy running through their upbringing giving them a positive counterpoint to any of the negative male experiences they might have as they find their way through, but I think there are perhaps some who would say even living with their dads, they never had that either. What I got instead was a very strong and profound relationship with my mum. I developed other branches and roots, different, extra arteries to connect to her. She effectively got the love I had for two parents wrapped in one. It made us all intensely tight as a family, with that sense that it was us against the world, it gave myself and my sisters a lasting unity and bond, a haven from which I still draw deep.