I was nineteen and in the second year of my A levels when I found out I was pregnant. To say it was a surprise, would be an understatement. My boyfriend of two years – a soldier who was frequently away – was equally surprised, but initially supportive. I decided – in the iconic words of Madonna in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – hmmm, I’m gonna keep my baby. As she also sang, I decided, we can raise a little family, maybe we’ll be all right, it’s a sacrifice. Then my boyfriend changed his mind when I was six months pregnant. Aside from five minutes in a courtroom a year later – trying and failing to get maintenance for my son – I have never seen him since.
And so I became a single parent.
Just like that.
I lived at home with my single mother and three other siblings, in a small council house. I had no savings. Of course I didn’t. I was nineteen. Though I’d had summer and evening jobs since I was fourteen, I’d never expected to be a mum so young, and so suddenly, and on my own. I put my name down on the council housing list as it was the only way I might be able to move out and not have to pay a huge deposit. Nothing happened. No offer of anything. I wasn’t ‘desperate’ enough, which is absolutely fair, since I had a roof over my head, even though I was sharing a bedroom with my mother – not the best experience with a heavy drinker – because my twin sisters shared a tiny room and my brother, being now twelve, had to have the other.
My son Conor was born at the beginning of 1991. I fell completely and utterly in love. Despite a thirty-six-hour labour, and a whopping 9lb 9oz boy, it felt like magic to hold him in my arms. I’d been looking after my siblings since I was four so, really, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. He slept in a Moses basket baby on the landing. (My mother didn’t want to be disturbed by him in the night.) In January. In a council house with no central heating. But I’ve always felt this made him the hardy creature he is, very rarely ill. I’d often fall asleep there, next to that basket, feeding him in the night on the landing, both of us wrapped in a duvet, the sweet scent of him something I can still smell now.
Eventually, when Conor was nine months old, I’d saved up enough for a deposit and got a cheap rented property. There was no heating apart from one small gas fire in the living room, and no double glazing. But I made it homely. I looked for work. This was a time before the CSA enforced maintenance from absent fathers and so I had to pay for everything Conor and I needed. It was also a time before Tax Credits at least topped up low incomes and helped with childcare. Whatever I earned would have to pay the rent, childcare, bills, food and clothes – for two of us. There was no job I had a hope in hell of getting that would cover it. I had no experience. So I went on benefits. I got £80 a week. That was for everything. I wasn’t a scrounger. I wanted desperately to work. I went every month to the job centre to see if there was something that paid enough.
At times, I was lonely and depressed. All my friends were at university or travelling the world. My own father had not been in life since I was fifteen. Now I had a son with no father too. I had zero self-pity though. I’d made the decision to have my child, and that came with all the risks of ending up alone. But very few single parents end up that way by choice. Very few are scrounging or lazy. I used the words single parent rather than single mum as I know it can happen to anyone.
Once Conor went to nursery and then school – when childcare was therefore minimal – I went back to college and then got a job in a hotel. I eventually met my husband and had our daughter. And finally, when my son was eight, I got maintenance payments from his father.
Now, when I’m on the bus and see a very young mum with her baby, I feel huge compassion for her, and if there’s a chance, make a fuss of her child. She may not be alone. There may be a partner. I don’t know the full story. And this is the thing. We never do. But the fact is that behind every single parent there is an absent parent. And which is worse? A parent who is there – or a parent who isn’t?