For single parents, the pandemic has been particularly brutal

Rebecca Cox
·6-min read
Photo credit: globalmoments
Photo credit: globalmoments

From Harper's BAZAAR

This Sunday, 21 March, is Single Parents’ Day. Single parent households account for one in four UK families, with around 1.8million single parents across the country, 80-90% of which are women. Here, single mum Rebecca Cox tells us what the last year has been like and breaks down why the system is currently failing single parents across the UK.

"I can’t do this on my own, mummy.” Not a quote from my son, aged four, but me, aged 33, on the phone to my mum. That was the first week of lockdown, when we had no idea how long the newly imposed restrictions would go on for, and I had no idea how I would juggle working from home with no childcare and no adult contact to maintain my sanity. I didn’t think I could do it.

Like many, over those first few months, I yo-yoed wildly from hysteria to despair, my son and I spent our days in the garden (for which I have never been more grateful), throwing David Bowie raves and garden parties (admittedly with diminishing gusto), and living by a ‘just keep swimming’ mantra, hopeful that a swift return to normality would allow single parents everywhere to add another hard-earned battle scar, dust ourselves off and continue the daily grind. But it was not to be.

It was 82 days from the first day of lockdown until the introduction of support bubbles. Some solo parents didn’t get a single hour off from their children in 82 days straight. Single parents faced days and nights when their children were with their co-parent completely alone, often with no face-to-face contact with anyone but their ex (picture that, if you will). When you’re a single parent, you quickly learn that when you want something doing, you have to do it yourself. You might have seen the introduction of support bubbles as a moment of compassion from the government, but it took one single mum hand-delivering a letter to Dominic Cummings (who found time to read it, between jollies) and lobbying No 10 to get the job done. That mum was Ruth Talbot, who set up the Single Parent Rights’ campaign during the first lockdown in response to the invisibility of single parents. A survey by the group of more than 1000 single parents showed that 51% reported discrimination within lockdown rules (such as not being able to enter shops with their kids or being forced to home school while working from home with no concessions) and 96% of those reported a negative impact on their mental health as a result. The group’s research also revealed heightened discrimination in certain groups, including single parents from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic groups, those living with disabilities and those on low incomes.

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Caroline Nokes MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said: “During our inquiry into the gendered economic impact of Covid we heard a great deal of evidence of how single parents in particular had struggled in the pandemic. We know 80-90% of them are women and it is not just during the pandemic that they face barriers that those in two-parent families do not. This research gives a very clear picture of those ongoing challenges.”

Indeed, according to a report by charity Gingerbread, single parent families were more than three times as likely to have relied on food banks during the crisis, compared to coupled families, and 49% of single parents reported taking on more debt since Covid with almost one in ten falling out of employment over the last year.

But the discrimination experienced by single parents pre-dates the pandemic. Child benefit rules mean two-parent families can earn up to £100,000 (there is a £50,000 cap per parent), twice that of single parents, while single parent registered carers are excluded from the 30hours of funded childcare for 3–4-year-olds. With a quarter of all families in the country impacted by policies like these, how are such a huge group being overlooked?

While Gingerbread has launched a fundraiser to support those hardest hit, campaign founder Ruth Talbot wants lasting change. “Single parent families have faced systemic discrimination for decades - this didn't end when Covid hit. In fact, the institutional bias which assumes all children have two active parents was at the core of many of the challenges faced by single parent families throughout the last year,” she told me.

“Covid must become a turning point in the treatment of single parents in the UK. The government must add single parents as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act alongside those in a marriage/civil partnership to ensure all families are treated equally."

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From these bleak statistics I count myself incredibly lucky that the impact of the pandemic has been largely emotional for me and my son. We’ve driven each other crazy. I’ve driven myself to the point of mental exhaustion juggling home school and working from home. We’ve driven to my mum’s nearly every single Sunday since support bubbles were introduced and she’s almost certainly saved my sanity. We keep driving forwards, despite not knowing the destination, always together and truly, while it’s been hard, there’s nobody I’d rather have had in the passenger seat alongside me than my son.

Like all parents, I’ve spent the last year besieged with worries. Will my son’s mental health be impacted by all of this? Will he be OK without seeing any other children? What will I do if I get Covid? Will I lose my job? How long will this go on for? And like the 1.8 million other single parents out there, I’ve faced these worries alone. They’ve kept me up at night, at times they’ve rendered me paralysed with anxiety and ultimately, they’ve etched that aforementioned battle scar as a permanent worry line, furrowed between my brows.

I have been a single mum for four years and the fellow single parents I’ve met are, across the board, the most tenacious, resilient and inspiring group of people I’ve ever known. I now know this is not through choice, but necessity. I have leant on them more than ever, since they alone understood the intensity of what this felt like, holding everything together for the sake of your children, in this mad new world. So, on Single Parents Day, this goes out to them. To my Frolo mum friends who just get it, to the single dads so often forgotten and to my own incredible mum, who taught me how to thrive as a single parent and whose gentle strength guides me, always.

To all the single parents: just keep swimming and know that you are not alone.

To find out how to support the Single Parent Rights Campaign visit singleparentrights.org or to support single parents in need visit gingerbread.enthuse.com


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