Recognition that the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating inequalities is increasing, including perspectives that disparate experiences of the crisis are raced as well as gendered. One group of women whose challenges are currently exacerbated in hidden ways are single mothers.
Mostly it is women who undertake responsibility for the children produced in an unsuccessful relationship, reflected in the fact that 90% of single parents are women in the UK, a group I have done research with and of which I am part. One in four families is led by a single parent, yet single parent women specifically do not enjoy public support, despite the various ways we contribute to society, not least through doing the work of raising the next generation.
Gingerbread, the national charity that advocates for single parents, has raised a list of policy concerns to flag potential material impacts of the pandemic on single parents and their children. The more private challenges we face, in the current context and during less fraught times, are generally less discussed, perhaps in-part because these are obscured behind closed doors, within the private space of the home. Here I try to uncover some of these.
‘Lockdown’ rules mean we face a protracted period in confinement with our children, increasing and officiating the constraint we usually experience. Those still with jobs and able to work from home face balancing full-time carework, with homeschooling and domestic labour, with no support and little respite. The fact that some of us still need to leave home during the pandemic for work as carers, medical staff, supermarket workers and bus drivers, creates a childcare quandary for single mothers with younger children.
Undertaking full-time care of children during this period will increase the financial self-discipline typically required of single mothers. There is an implicit blame for the predicaments we face, rather than recognition that difficult and unworkable circumstances during ‘normal times’ are the product of gendered and societal inequity, the fact that current social organisation is not working for us, as well as other marginalised and exploited social groups.
Punitive treatment of single mothers through stigma and political neglect, do not only harm us but also our children, who may absorb our stresses and strains. One consequence of ‘social distancing’ is mandatory isolation for single parent families, detachment from the support system it is argued is so important for mothers and children, for the practicalities of family life as well as our well-being.
Critical feminist writing attends less to the challenges faced by single parent women. This is a missed opportunity as our experiences reflect broader gendered asymmetries of power. The uneven responsibility between single mothers and non-resident fathers is one underexamined type of injustice that is the consequence of patriarchal social arrangements. My research with single mothers demonstrated the hidden labour women do in this family structure and the self-discipline demanded of us as main or sole parents.
In the context of Covid-19, such labour by single parent women is further normalised and depoliticised. In this current context single parent women become a homeschooler, a personal trainer, a full-time cook and children’s entertainer, to name but a few roles undertaken in attending to the needs of her child(ren). There is clearly an experiential gap between single parent women and non-resident fathers.
My research with single parent women showed that even when non-resident fathers remained connected to their children, as they commonly did, it was mothers who did the heavy-lifting of parenting, illuminating a gendered asymmetry of labour between separated parents. The single parent women I spoke to recalled holding ultimate responsibility for the accomplishment of everyday carework as well as responding to emergencies alone.
There is a distorted understanding of non-resident fathers ‘helping’ us or providing ‘childcare support’ to us, instead of them simply fulfilling their commitments as parents. With regard to such dynamics, it has been suggested that the labour of raising children is reconceptualised as “caring” or “carework” as opposed to “mothering” and “fathering,” in order to challenge oppressive interpretations of the role of mothers, including unspoken and inequitable ascriptions of who does what and how much (Elliot et al. 2018:452).
The innovative feminist comic, You Should’ve Asked, by Emma details how this occurs in heterosexual couples. The title refers to the notion that male partners usually do household tasks only when requested. The difference in the experiences of mothers in heterosexual couples and single mothers is under-researched, however, what is clear is that non-resident fathers are even less available, which suggests the burdens borne by single parent women are intensified.
To be sure, the context of the coronavirus has not created this asymmetry of labour but exacerbated it, exposing a deeply etched fault in our society. For too long the disproportionate carework of mothers, and single mothers especially, has been naturalised as a labour of love, despite a long history of women resisting and problematising their exploitation. The 1970’s wages for housework movement (see Davis 2019) disrupted the lack of recognition of carework and domestic labour and woman scholars (Bryan et al. 2018; Phoenix 1996; Reynolds 2005) have challenged the mischaracterisation and blame of women who lead their own families as single mothers.
The societal focus on and anxiety around non-resident fathers, often unfairly labelled ‘absent’, has distracted potentially supportive political attention from present mothers and the challenges we face. Reactionary parent blame and anxiety about family change have precluded thought and action on how society might be better organised to work for a broader range of family types. More constructive questions about single mother families we could be asking include, in what ways do separated mothers and fathers successfully co-parent? And for beyond the pandemic, how might the progressive cultural practice of community care of children work to liberate women?
In the clamour to make sense of the crisis and deal with its impacts, the inequity outlined here that is faced by single parent women in the home is unlikely to make it on to the political agenda. In order to change the narrow, limited and often negative conversation around single mothering, we must break the silence around it. The assertion that “as mothers we are worse off than we think we are,” (Clark 2005:86) holds much truth. Life in lockdown provides an opportunity to take stock of the personal cost of mothering, to reimagine more equitable family futures, and the positive social actions that might get us there.
Miranda Armstrong is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer in Sociology, currently based at Goldsmiths College University of London