Thursday 22 March 2018

The power of one

Raising a child alone doesn't have to hamper your career, writes Larissa Nolan. Here, she meets four single mums who have carved out successful careers despite the inherent challenges of parenting solo

Marisa Mackle and Gary (7)
Marisa Mackle and Gary (7)

There's a scene in the movie About a Boy in which Hugh Grant's character attends a support group for lone parents in a sneaky ploy to meet attractive, single women.

Masquerading as the dumped dad of a two-year-old boy, he finds himself standing in a circle, holding hands with hard-done-by, mopey mums and chanting the group's name: "Single Parents Alone Together! Single Parents Alone Together!"

The film is from 2002, but it's still a funny clip - particularly so to anyone who actually is a single parent.

We get that it's making fun of common misconceptions about single mothers - that we're either bitter, or self-pitying, or some class of a hippie who doesn't live life by conventional rules or, indeed, would ever have the time or the opportunity to attend a self-help meeting.

Thankfully, the perception of the single mother is undergoing a change. Discrimination still endures - it does for everyone who is in any way different - but the idea of the "unmarried mother" who feeds off the State and is always clawing for others' help has been shattered.

It's been smashed by the growing number of professional, successful women who are showing that you can raise a child alone and continue to progress your career.

They work across the board while managing the tricky juggle of solo parenting at the same time; it's undeniably hard work and effort, but it's something all of them agree is hugely rewarding and worthwhile.

In the public eye, there are dozens of high-powered women who raised or are raising children alone - broadcaster Grainne Seoige, actress Charleigh Bailey, magazine editor Ellie Balfe, communications expert Gina London, PR supremo Sharon Bannerton.

There are in the region of 187,000 single mothers in Ireland - there are some dads too, but women take over the sole responsibility almost nine times out of 10, according to statistics.

The figures also show that approximately 50pc of them are working single mothers. Being a lone parent is a full-time job in itself, so it is understandable how the other half may be unable for employment, for a variety of complex reasons.

But those of them who have the will to find a way are going all the way - to the top.

Let's not sugar-coat it, it's not easy. Children are born of two parents for many good reasons - to share the responsibility, to support each other, to ensure there's one carer there if the other gets sick, to tag-team in an emergency.

When one is not around to halve to load, then it's double the work for the one who is left coping alone.

It can be highly stressful, emotionally and physically draining. Burnout - a medical diagnosis of mental and physical exhaustion - is common amongst this group.

So how do those who are at the top of their game make it work? How do they navigate the demanding worlds of work and parenting, without a co-pilot?

Communications strategist Gina London is a former award-winning CNN news anchor who lives with her daughter Lulu (8) in Cork.

Gina, who is originally from Indiana, USA, says advance planning is key in making the day run smoothly.

"I don't have an extended family to turn to, they're all in the States, so it's imperative to plan. Recently I was a keynote speaker at a two-day conference and I booked a childminder three weeks before to bring Lulu to school and even keep her overnight so I wouldn't have to worry. It meant peace of mind prevailed for everyone."

She schedules appointments around her child, not the other way around. "I try to work smarter, not longer. When I'm consulting and training clients, I schedule meetings after school drop-off and before collection."

Working with people who are understanding about children can also be helpful when balancing things. And she advises being honest when you have to be - but keep the details brief.

"Almost all professionals these days understand that we don't have a professional life and a personal life; we just have a life. Therefore, if I'm called suddenly to school because Lulu is sick - which has only ever happened once, touch wood - I'll tell the client the truth but I won't bore them with every detail. I'll move to get back on track with their own concerns, rebook our meeting or whatever. It's important to remain professional and not start unloading about your child's gastrointestinal issues, for everyone's sake."

She says, where possible, it's ideal to coordinate with the co-parent.

"Lulu's dad, Scotty Walsh, and I are united in our commitment to her. While I am the day-to-day care provider - fixing breakfasts, making lunches, overseeing homework - her dad regularly pitches in. For instance, I travel up to Dublin about once a week, sometimes overnight, and he will readily pick Lulu up from school, take her to ballet practice, that sort of thing."

Model and actress Irma Mali - who moved to Ireland from Lithuania in the early 2000s - is a single parent to daughter Nikoleta, now 13.

She and Nikoleta's dad Marius had split when he tragically died in 2009, and happily, Irma is now expecting a baby in January with her new partner Barry Maguire.

"It's a full-time job. In the morning, you have to be up earlier than anyone else to get them ready for school, then it's breakfasts, lunches, dropped to school, collected again, dinner. It's non-stop. It can be stressful - you're in work and thinking of what time you need to be back.

"I am constantly rushing, my time is always allotted - I know what I am going to do in the next hour or even the next two days. Everything is planned, there is no spontaneity. It is a military operation."

Irma's mother came to live in Ireland when Nikoleta was a toddler, which was helpful, but Irma, a busy model with the 1st Option agency, was conscious of not putting parenting duties on a grandmother.

"She would help me if I needed her to be collected or if I needed to go out. But I try not to put too much work on her shoulders. I think your own mother is a great help and support, but ultimately, it is your own responsibility."

Nikoleta was a clingy baby and would not settle in a crèche - so she hired childminders to help share her care along with her mother.

She says you also need to remind yourself to look after your own health. "There is a tendency to keep going if you're sick. But you need to remember to look after yourself if you are to look after a child.

"I wouldn't change anything, and I am glad to have had Nikoleta so young. I have another baby on the way now and Nikoleta is a teenager and can't wait for the baby to be born so she can help me with babysitting. It's nice how it has worked out."

Actress Clelia Murphy was 22 when she had daughter Clarabelle, who is now 18. She has always been a solo parent and says the one trait that has characterised that part of her life is her "dogged refusal to give up".

There's nothing you can't do if you put your mind to it," she adds. "And if I can do it, or another woman can do it, anyone can.

"I was determined to be the breadwinner. I wanted to put food on the table and shoes on her feet. If I wasn't acting, I was teaching classes.

"I was lucky in that I had the parents I had and the help of family around me. I had such great support - she was raised by a village, as I always say."

But Clelia was independent and brought Clarabelle to work if she had to. "There were times on the set of Fair City where Claudia Carroll would be holding her if I was in a scene and then I'd hold her while Claudia went to her scene. Sometimes I had to bring her with me and I just got on with it."

She says it's important to cut yourself a break at times. "You're only human. It's okay to be honest and say every now and then: 'This is kinda hard.'

"It can be all-encompassing and it's a challenge on mind and body and you can get burned out from time to time. That's just how it is. It's okay not to be perfect."

Clarabelle has helped her discover things about herself she'd never have known. "I didn't realise I had such strength. Raising children is a different challenge every year, and I think about it like a kid looking up at a doorbell and wondering when they can reach it. And one day, you're surprised to find you can reach it on your own."

Author Marisa Mackle is another successful woman who has been a single parent to her son Gary (7) from the beginning. She has written 15 books and her work has been translated into 10 different languages, but her work schedule - and her life - was transformed with the arrival of Gary in 2009.

Marisa spent the first six months exhausted from late nights and found herself fantasising about having the time to even have a bath. She soon came up with a solution.

She had worked as an au pair herself as a teenager, and so she hired a live-in nanny to enable her to work effectively, as well as be mum to Gary.

"It wasn't a case of being too posh to parent. I didn't have that second parent, and continuing to write was a priority for me. I couldn't have worked without doing that. For me, if I hadn't reliable help, I would have got stuck in the poverty trap and never got out. If you are serious about your career, you have to take your arrangements seriously.

"I had someone there so I could go to my room and write for hours and not be disturbed, and then come back and be mum to Gary. I wouldn't depend on family members; it's not fair and they only end up resenting you."

Gary is in school now, and they go everywhere together - she works in the early hours of the morning before he goes off for the day. "I get up and work at 5am until it's time for school. I'm not an early morning person at all, but if I don't write in that window, I won't have time to write at all."

Irish Independent

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