I read a headline on a newspaper in a shop recently which blared that 1 in 4 parents in the UK is now a lone parent and the bulk of these are single mothers. There is an easy assumption that this signals a decline in British morality that started sometime when the contraceptive pill came into common usage and as a result of 'free love' of the 1960s. Of course, lone parent families are no new invention, just look at the records of 1919 and 1946 to see how many there were. In the Victorian period when mortality was higher, the average working man dying at 45, there were often widows bringing up children alone. People say, well, of course, it was different back them, people could draw on the wider family, forgetting that these days many grandparents, about 300,000 in the UK in 2009 are the prime child carers and that if you ever go to poor areas and I can draw on personal experiences from East London and Milton Keynes (which does have a poor ghetto area) then daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers often step in for childcare roles. I remember standing behind a woman in a post office in Milton Keynes who said 'I was looking after my daughter's step-daughter's daughter...' as showing something of the nature of modern UK families; with longer life expectancy people across four generations can be involved.
You can argue that part of the problem is that people take on children as a pastime that they tire of. It is certain that in our increasingly horribly sexualised society in which as Natasha Walton noted recently that the media in all forms encourages vigorously boys and men are to be macho and violent and girls and women submissive in a way that horrifies anyone who lived through the era of feminism. It also means that men do not take responsibility for anything which is seen as 'feminine' and that includes looking after children. Creating children, spreading your seed is macho, but dealing with the consequences is never seen as needing thought. It is much the same with attacking men for looking at you in a pub or driving too fast, we have become a society which neglects thought of the consequence of any action, it is saving face that is the only thing that matters. Thus, I am not arguing that access to contraception is causing lone parent families, in fact it is helping prevent it spreading so far. The problem is that in the desire to move back to 'Victorian values' we have rapidly moved back to a society in which men of all social standing got women pregnant and left them to the workhouse or begging. These days the workhouse is social welfare and so many people try to make single mothers feel guilty and grateful for the meagre income they receive. No credit is given for trying to find work in a society in which child care is prohibitively expensive and no credit is given to those grandparents and female relatives who spare the state of its childcare responsibilities.
Thus, I would argue that we should move from this simple assumption that sees lone parent families as somehow a symptom of immorality, except on the basis of (men) not living up to the consequences of your actions, and again that seems to be something that is lauded in our media rather than condemned. I also think that the condemnation of lone parent families on the basis that the children of them will be socially dysfunctional is also wrong. It is far better for a child to be with a loving mother than having an abusive or neglectful father in tow. I have noticed this many times before when speaking to children from lone parent families. It is apparent that they are far better equipped for dealing with the world than children who grow up with two parents. One of the most robust, innovative and well-travelled woman I ever met had had a father and uncle who had committed suicide when she was a girl. I doubt she would have experienced all that she did unless that had happened in her life, she was a better person for it.
There is something about a child with a single parent that makes them more resilient and though I have long known this, it is has become more observable as my own household has changed. As I have noted before, I have become de facto father on the eight year old son of the woman who lives in my house. Now, however, whilst paying the mortgage on the house as an investment, I have moved away to find work and now live in a hotel. Hence, the boy who has had this pseudo-father for five years, is now back, more consciously to being the child of a single parent. Have I seen a change in his behaviour? Immediately. He has grown up incredibly in the three months since I left. His literacy skills have leapt on but far more importantly he has shaken off silly, juvenile behaviour and now really contributes to the house, tidying his room, sorting out his laundry and washing up twice per week, all things he would never do when I was in the house. He has a curiosity about vocabulary and certainly about finance that was also missing until I went. Very rapidly he is gaining very useful skills that will stop him being one of these feckless teenagers you see trying and failing to live away from home at university and going back to live with their parents well into their 30s.
Why is there this difference? I suppose because the child learns quickly that with one person if it cannot be done it will not be done. There is no father to cover when the mother is sick. There is no-one to mind the child when the shopping or the cleaning or the cooking is done, the child witnesses everything of everyday life which twin parents not really consciously generally shield their children from. They also learn that if they do not do what they are asked, something is going to go wrong, there is no father to fetch the dishes or pick up the rubbish in their place. If the child does not do it then it is simply another job for the mother. In a single parent family there is none of the sleight of hand that occurs automatically in a dual parent family. This tackles one of the key problems of contemporary UK society, that it is someone else's responsibility to do anything you dislike. Shirking such responsibility is impossible in the single parent family.
The one drawback of the single parent family is money. Since the late 1960s in the UK, certainly in southern England, but increasingly elsewehre, it has been impossible for one parent to earn enough to support a partner and two children in a middle class lifestyle, i.e. a car of less than 10 years old, a 3-bedroomed house, a foreign holiday once per year, a television that works, insuring household items and being able to replace things that break, eating out in a restaurant once per month, not a luxurious life but a 'comfortable' one. Lone parents unless among the very rich cannot have a comfortable life. Even with me paying into this single parent family neither they nor I can achieve such prosperity. Some lone parents do get enough money from a partner who has gone but they are not the majority. Given that the cost of so much, notably entering higher education, effectively precludes it to so many people, this is one drawback for the lone parent family, not helped by women earning 17% less than a man in the same role; women being in the large majority of lone parents. However, given the efforts in the media to constantly discredit so many of the universities and degrees a large portion of the students whose families are new to higher education have been through, perhaps a more innovative, robust attitude to life that a child of a lone parent develops is going to help them when the Establishment has ensured that so many people's qualifications have been devalued.Look around at the single parent families you know and you will find their children are more mature and are certainly aware of the consequences of their actions, even if the context they are living in limits their options for the future. I am not advocating that men go round fathering children and abandoning them, on this blog I have always insisted people should handle the consequences of their actions. What I am saying is that the media should not see single parent families as an easy target to say something about declining morality and rather see them as actually admirably equipping children for the challenges they are going to face.