Is single parenthood easier?

Jun 25, 2017


I am sitting with my friend Annabel having dinner together, our eldest sons, hers aged 13, mine15, are at the table. They are talking away to each other discussing the latest films to come out. Annabel and I are watching them. Then Annabel leans back and says, ‘I’m so glad I brought Jo up on my own. It’s much easier being a single parent.’

I nearly fall off my chair. I too was a single parent of my eldest son Raymond. His father and I split up when he was two years old and although I went on a few years later to meet another man and have three more children, Raymond has always really been a single-parented child. It has always been a bit of a raw nerve with me. I used to spend a lot of time worrying he didn’t really have a father. His father and I were living abroad. I moved home. He stayed abroad and consequently, hasn’t seen that much of Raymond. At times, I tell Annabel, I found it very hard, financially and emotionally-speaking even though, now, I can see that Raymond is a wonderful warm and caring human being, seemingly undamaged by all the trauma he has ben through.

Annabel looks at me and then says, ‘I think, if you look back on it, you’ll see it was much easier being a single parent than it would have been had you and Raymond’s father stayed together.’ She then goes on to say, ‘life as a single parent might be hard but it’s also very liberating. It makes you brave. You have to grow-up, take full responsibility. It also leaves you free to love your child in the way you want to. No more rows about bed times or schooling or manners or where your child should sleep. No more run-ins about you loving your children more than them. No more negotiating with your other half. In a way, single parenting is far easier.’ She sighs. ‘Imagine if you’d had to have brought Raymond up with a controlling father. It would have driven you mad!’

She should know. Annabel met her son Jo’s father, Ben, 20 years ago and they were together for seven years before they had Jo.

‘I should have known better,’ she says. ‘I should have realised we weren’t going to work well together as parents. Ben was far more controlling of Jo than I was. As a baby, when Jo would cry, I’d put him in his cot. I was always desperate to put him in the bed. We’d have huge rows about it. I’d feel that I wasn’t allowed to be the mother I wanted to be. I felt stifled and it was very upsetting.’

In the end, Annabel says her relationship with Ben fell apart. ‘As Jo got older, I could see he felt edged out. My relationship with Jo was and is so close. We’d have so much fun together. I delighted in being his mother but Ben really couldn’t handle any of it.’ Annabel says her and Ben’s relationship lurched from one crisis to another until, finally, they decided to call it a day.

‘When Ben left, I realised I could finally parent Jo the way I wanted to.’ She says she felt an immense sense of freedom and hope. ‘I knew it would be a struggle financially-speaking but I work. I had friends nearby who offered to help. I could see a future for Jo and me.’

Jo was three when his parents split up and he hasn’t seen much of his father since then as his father lives in the United States. ‘But when he does come and see Jo, all the tensions come back,’ says Annabel. ‘That’s why I am convinced being a single parent is easier.’

She also lists all the other good things that happen when to a single parent; friends rally round, people are a bit more sympathetic to you than usual, you become more sociable, making yourself go out and do things, you can’t hide behind the other parent. ‘I also think it made me a better mother. If there was only me to parent Jo, then I needed to be the best parent I could be.’ She cut out late nights, drinking, smoking. ‘I became very focused. I worked hard to provide for us. Being a single parent taught me real moral lessons. I needed to be present in every way for Jo, to love him, look after him, protect him. In a way, I came in to my own. When friends would tell me how sorry they were for me and how hard it must be for me, I wanted to laugh. I saw them struggling looking after their husbands and children. I had freedom from all that.’

She says she did, however, have to put up with a lot of criticism. ‘There are those who think being a single mother is some sort of a crime. I was living in a small village in Herefordshire and people did gossip. I was considered to be the woman who had lost her husband and some people would go around saying how sorry they felt for Jo and it would make my blood boil!’

Annabel is now married to Daniel. They have been married for two years and they live together with Jo and Daniel’s three younger children, two boys and a girl, aged between 15 and nine, who stay with them fifty per cent of the time.

‘I find the negotiations hard to deal with,’ she says. ‘Daniel has a good relationship with his ex and with his children but he and his ex view the children in entirely different ways. Daniel says one thing, his ex says another. They don’t seem to have any rules that are the same. Even the bed times are different in both houses.’ She says when she sees the endless effort and tensions that goes in to parenting alongside another person, she is relieved she had Jo all to herself. ‘Sometimes, two people with different outlooks on childrearing find it impossible to find a line that works and I find it very exhausting.’ She points out that if you are a single parent – and the other parent is pretty-much absent as her ex Ben was – there is no such thing as negotiation. ‘What I said had to be the rule,’ she says. ‘I never had to discuss how much television Jo should or shouldn’t watch or what time he should go to bed. If I said 8pm, it’s 8pm, no arguing with some other parent.’

But maybe her viewpoint is coloured by watching a co-parent relationships that is being conducted by a mother and father who have separated, as in the case of Daniel and his ex, rather than two parents who have stayed together.

‘No way!’ she says. ‘I’ve seen this in so many of my friend’s marriages. There is so much tension about child-rearing. It’s incredible how many couples have basic differences when it comes to bringing up children. One, for example, is more draconian than the other. As a single parent, none of this becomes an issue. I found I could parent with confidence because I was on my own. A single parent is a confident parent.’

Annabel does admit it wasn’t easy at first. ‘It was hard. It was terrible dealing with the fall-out of the marriage. I felt emotionally and financially wrecked but, gradually as I built my life back up, I found I felt so much better, so much happier. I knew I could be a good and effective parent to Jo on my own. I could be a mother and a father. I truly believe what any child needs is one good parent. One fantastic parent is better than two half-hearted ones who are constantly undermining each other.’

But what about all these reports we read; that single-parented children don’t do as well at school, that not having two parents at home is damaging for a child, that being brought up as a single mother with an absent father will lead to a feckless life for a child who doesn’t know a male role model. Does Annabel worry about these things?

‘No. I’m not saying I haven’t worried about them in the past. Every time you read something, it strikes the fear in to you. But I look at Jo now and I know I have done a good job. He is bright, confident, happy. I can see, however, that he loves being with Daniel. It does sometimes worry me that maybe he has missed out after all but I am very proud of him. I honestly don’t think he could be a better person than he is now and although I has racked my brain to think what he might have missed out on by not having a present good father, I can’t really come up with anything.’

Later on, I ask Jo how he feels about it. He is an eloquent expressive 13 year-old and obviously very bright. He tells me that he has never really worried about the fact that he has been brought up by his mother. ‘It’s not that my father doesn’t love me,’ he says. ‘I know that he does. My mother tells me that and when I see my father, he also tells me that. But I am used to being with my mother and I’ve never really known it any other way.’ He says that friends do often as him if he misses his father or whether or not he is sad about not seeing him. ‘I tell them it doesn’t really bother me because it doesn’t. My mum’s amazing. She’s brought me up and she’s worked really hard to provide for us and I think she’s great fun so…I’ve never really felt any sense of loss about my father.’

He does, however, say that he is very happy Daniel is in their lives now. ‘It’s an odd thing to say but it feels more like a family now. I have my two new brothers and a sister and I have Daniel and I really like him.’ Does he see Daniel as being a father figure? He pauses. ‘In a way I do. We play a lot together and he takes me to football and he cheers for me. Mum never liked football.’ I ask him if anything else has changed. ‘Yes! My mother gets cross with Daniel because he’s tougher with me than she is!’

Annabel believes she had a freedom with Jo, bringing him up as a single parent, and she would never have had if Ben remained in their marriage.

‘I used to travel a lot. If I was lonely, I’d pick Jo up from school and we’d go to see friends. We did a lot of travelling. We spent so much time together. We became a team in a way. We have just grown to totally enjoy each other’s company.’ She says being a single parent has made her a braver person. ‘I had to get on with it. If we were going on holiday, I’d have to organise it. I’d have to drive in France for example and sort everything out. But that’s how it was. I adjusted. It was me and Jo and son everyone else adjusted. When we went to stay somewhere, we’d share a room. We became an entity really and I think the amount of time Jo has spent with me has made him a confident person. It has made me a braver person. I love being Jo’s mother. It has given me renewed vigour and also so much love. I think I understand men better now! Also, we really enjoy each other’s company.’

I agree with her about this. I spend a lot of time with Raymond and I actually prefer his company above and beyond most other people’s. Yet my experience hasn’t been the same as Annabel’s.

I spent years struggling financially, questioning everything I did with Raymond. I remember when he started school. I drove up to the top of the hill near the local village school and wept. I’d rage at his father. Why was he seemingly so happy living his life? He had a new relationship, he was living in a different country and I felt very alone and under-supported. It seemed vital to me that Raymond should have a father in his life.

But Annabel tells a different story. She believes the very success of her son (and mine) and their strong moral fabric and ability to communicate effectively, stems from the fact that they were raised by single mothers.

‘Look at how close our relationships are with our sons!’ she says. ‘I believe Jo is one of the best human beings I have ever met and I am extremely proud of him. I have no idea how he has ended up being so wonderful but it means the fact that I brought him up as a single mother hasn’t damaged him in any way – far from it. He has a real sense of himself, of how much I struggled sometimes. He is generous-hearted, open, honest, able to deal with strong emotions. He is confident and has a real sense of himself and who he is. Had he been stuck between two warring parents, I don’t think he would have been this person at all.’