I never planned to become a single mother. Despite what the media wants to make you believe, most people don’t. However, once you are, you want to be treated with the same respect as other mothers. You want your child to have the same opportunities as others and you want your family to be a happy one. Like so many other women that have the experience of being a single parent, I have felt anger about the stigma and stereotyping that continue to haunt single mothers in this country. I am particularly appalled by the difficulties facing parents when trying to juggle work with expensive and un-flexible childcare arrangements. In my day-to-day work for Bristol based charity Single Parent Action Network (SPAN), I work to improve the prospects for ALL families and I hope that other organisations, politicians, business and individuals in Bristol will join us in this cause.
When I had my daughter 10 years ago, I had no idea what a struggle it could be to raise a child on your own in the UK. I knew nothing about the benefit system, cost of childcare or how lonely one could feel in the company of a very small human being. I learnt quickly though. I learnt that as an EU citizen and a student I was not entitled to income support, but I had to work without receiving any maternity pay. I also learnt that childcare in the UK is the most expensive in Europe, and, to escape loneliness and boredom I learnt about all of Bristol parks and that you have to be pro-active to make new friends.
When you are a proud person, it is hard to ask for help. However, I could not do it all on my own, I needed other people’s support and advice to be able to move forward. I was a post-graduate student at Bristol University on a scholarship. Money was tight and I lived in a shared student house. A friend helped me to find a privately rented flat in Redfield despite me not having any references. My health visitor helped me to access childcare at a reduced cost so that I could continue with my studies and work part-time, and, a member of staff at SPAN told me about what benefits I was entitled to and East Bristol advice centre helped me to apply. I also had friends who helped me with childcare when needed, support that I could never have done without.
I was determined to continue with my post-graduate studies, but after two years of stress and minimal support from the university community I had to give in. The final straw was when my maintenance grant came to an end at the same time as Bristol City Council withdrew their childcare subsidy that had helped me to afford childcare. I had worked so hard, but there was just no way I could afford to continue. I quit, but had no idea what to do next.
My daughter was now two years old and I had to reconsider completely what to do with my life. I started to apply for jobs, but my lack of work experience in the UK and outside of the university did not play in my favour. My confidence had also suffered a blow and I remember feeling that I had to justify my ability to work despite being a single parent when I went to interviews. The first job I got was as an admin temp at Voscur earning £6 per hour. When a permanent admin post came up a few months later I applied, but did not get the job. Voscur did, however, offer another admin job and I was able to stay. I was constantly told that I was over qualified, but I was just happy to have a job.
During this time I found a leaflet from SPAN at my daughter’s nursery and I enrolled on a career coaching course. This was the first time that I had the opportunity to be in a group with other single parents. We came from different backgrounds and had different aspirations, but everybody was supportive and real. I also joined a parenting programme called Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities and was able to share the experience of parenting alone with others. It was great to be part of a supportive group and my confidence grew.
A job came up as a part-time admin support worker working with the SFSC parenting programme. I applied and got the job! Eight years later, after having had various roles within the organisation, I am now the Director of SPAN Family & Study Centre. I am no longer a struggling single parent, but I will never forget those years when my daughter was little. Over the years that I have worked for SPAN, I have had the privilege to meet many amazing single parents and children. Parents who sometimes are facing much more challenging circumstances than I ever did. Some are raising disabled children on their own, others have fled domestic abuse. Many have English as a second language, some are young mothers and others have grown up witnessing war and violence. Yet, despite difficult circumstances, they want to create a good life for themselves and their children.
When my daughter was little, single parents were able to access help through tax credits to pay for up to 80 % of their childcare costs. Sure Start Centres were opened and SPAN ran a home based childcare project. Through the New Deal for lone parents, Jobcentre Plus offered single parents additional financial support, specialist advise and support with training. It worked and helped thousands of single parents to move in to sustainable employment without loosing out financially. This is all gone now.
I have never seen so many single parents struggle as I have in this past year. Parents are sanctioned by Jobcentre plus and have their benefits cut left to survive on next to nothing. When parents move in to work, their housing benefits are stopped as they need to be reassessed, delays can lead to evictions and homelessness. We see parents who are desperate to learn English, but can’t find a place on a course. Women who flee domestic violence, but because of benefit delays they have to go to food banks to survive. Most of the women that we see moving in to employment move in to precarious work on zero hour contracts.
George Ferguson was the first Mayor in the UK who signed the European Charter on Equality between Women and Men committing to ensure that Bristol work towards gender equality in all aspects of city life. 75 % of all children growing up in poverty in Bristol live in a single parent household. Over 90 % live with a single mother. Despite government cuts, more could be done to support this part of Bristol’s population. More joined-up thinking and creative approaches could be found. However, the voluntary and statutory sectors cannot achieve this on their own. We need other sectors to join us too, in our mission to ensure that Bristol’s prosperity benefits us all.
This article appeared in a shorter version in Bristol Woman in March 2014.
Written by Tove Samzelius
Director of SPAN Family & Study Centre