Thursday 12 December 2019

It's not easy being a lone parent - and we deserve better

Oh yes, the fallen women syndrome is still alive and well in Ireland. Certainly things have improved but scratch the surface and it’s still there. Are we still punishing women who decide to go it alone? (Picture posed)
Oh yes, the fallen women syndrome is still alive and well in Ireland. Certainly things have improved but scratch the surface and it’s still there. Are we still punishing women who decide to go it alone? (Picture posed)

Barbara Scully

The 'Repeal the 8th' campaign has been gathering momentum and has put the issue of unplanned pregnancy back on the political agenda. Unplanned pregnancy is a massively emotional and complex subject. Few issues are as divisive or polarising and voices tend to get drowned out in the hue and cry.

The debate has become much more personalised, with some really courageous and selfless women coming forward to tell their stories. The first group of brave women are those who have experienced the pain of having their unborn baby diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. Many had to travel abroad, usually to the UK, to obtain a medical termination. These women, often with their partners, shared their deeply personal stories in the hope of sparing other women from a similar fate. The second group of women are those who have spoken publicly about their unplanned pregnancy and of their lonely journey abroad to have an abortion, often a journey they made alone and in secret. These women risked personal abuse by telling their stories. I commend their courage.

But the conversation around unplanned pregnancy is missing the voices and the stories of another cohort of women - those who decide to proceed with the pregnancy and raise their child alone. Their undertaking is a huge one, on what can often be a very lonely road. I know because I travelled it too. Although my experience was back in the late 1980s, Ireland is still a very difficult country in which to parent alone. I am convinced there is an unconscious bias against single mothers in this country, which may explain why lone parents have been targeted so viciously in the austerity Budgets.

In day-to-day conversation it is still possible to hear phrases that belong to another age. Only recently, a journalist on national radio referred to "girls who got themselves into trouble" without being challenged. No one seemed to notice. I stood beside a middle-aged male acquaintance recently as a pregnant girl in school uniform passed us on the street. Without missing a beat, he said: "More of our tax money to support that."

The ultimate proof of the status of the single mother in Ireland has got to be the farcical situation regarding step-parent adoption. I am still angry that my country thought it was right to put me through this particular humiliation. If a single mother decides to marry someone who is not the biological father of her child and wants her husband to adopt her child, she will discover that it is not possible to facilitate this in what might be considered a normal fashion. Oh no, the child can only be adopted jointly by the married couple. So the formerly single mother has to endure the indignity of being assessed by the State as to her suitability to parent her own child. Once the process is complete the child will then be issued with a birth cert which names their mother as their 'adopted' mother. Secrets and lies.

Have we learnt nothing from our ignoble history of how women who became pregnant outside of marriage were treated? It seems not.

Oh yes, the fallen women syndrome is still alive and well in Ireland. Certainly things have improved but scratch the surface and it's still there. Are we still punishing women who decide to go it alone?

Is that why lone parents seem to be targeted unfairly when it comes to cuts to social welfare? The removal of the lone parent allowance when the youngest child reaches seven was particularly savage and has pushed many families into dire poverty.

In order for women to make informed choices about their pregnancies, we must make sure Ireland is a much more comfortable place for the family headed by a lone parent, and particularly by a single woman.

We have managed it in relation to same-sex couples - it speaks volumes that we have yet to do it in relation to single mothers.

We need to put an end to the indignity of mothers being forced to adopt their own child and the perpetuating of a legal lie in that regard.

We need to ensure all parents - but especially lone parents - have access to affordable and quality childcare. And we urgently should insist that the lone-parent allowance to parents whose youngest child has reached seven is reviewed.

In her famous Noble Call during the Marriage Equality Referendum, Panti Bliss talked about having to check herself. Well, maybe it's time we all checked ourselves in relation to our attitudes to single mothers. Once we have done that, we need to couple our call to 'Repeal the 8th' with a call to improve the situation for single-parent families in Ireland.

In the meantime, lone parents of Ireland, I salute you. It ain't easy. I should know.

Irish Independent

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