When Hester, from The Scarlet Letter, gets pregnant by some randy priest in a forest, she has to wear a big ‘A’ around her neck for the rest of her life. This ‘A’ stands for adultery and is an outward sign of her inner shame and depravity; despite the fact that her husband had left her long before she shacked up with the horny cleric and became impregnated from his holy sperm. Undergraduate literature students will churn feminist essays out every year about the scarlet letter being a symbol of her degradation and the sign of a wider misogyny– about "how it’s…like… really wrong and stuff, cos she becomes…like… a Victorian index of cultural decline". Through Hester, English students all over the country realise that the ‘single mother’ used to be held up as a mirror for social ills, back then in the Puritan times and probably even still at the time the book was written in 1850. It was a form of branding – just like you brand a cow with a coloured letter to identify them from the other cows, you can brand a woman with a coloured letter so everyone will know what a hoebag they are, thereby giving her a chance to achieve true shame and contrition, whilst protecting all the innocent menfolk from her wicked, wily ways.
We no longer use Scarlet Letters. We don’t need to. On the subject of their own motherhood, we still have women expressing very Hester-like sentiments such as ‘I feel like society sees me as nothing - as a scrounger. I feel like everyone wants me to be ashamed.’
We still have women walking around feeling like they’re wearing a scarlet letter without the one redeeming factor of wearing one; namely, that it was a small hint at redemption. The ‘A’ should stand for ‘apologies’: “Apologies for this immaculate conception that I have taken the entire responsibility for. Apologies for showing the world that sex isn’t always one massive Ann Summers party – sometimes it results in creating children. Apologies for not having an abortion, which you would have hated me for anyway. Apologies for loving my child enough not to give it up for adoption. Apologies for not being able to afford childcare for my children and having no option but to rely on benefits so at least we have somewhere to live and something to eat. Apologies for not having some divine ability to make a man stay with me who wanted to leave, or to oblige some backwards ideal of a nuclear family and stay in a destructive relationship for the sake of keeping up appearances. Apologies for being visible within society – walking around, looking like I have no money. Apologies that, like most social groups, I mix with other people who are similar to me who might also be single mothers themselves. Apologies for having relationships with other men and not converting to a life of celibacy because it would make you more comfortable. Apologies for being alive, rather than just sitting in a room being ashamed of myself, to protect you from the inconvenience of seeing me.”
We act as an abusive partner to the single mother. We bully and patronize her in equal measure. Society protects single mothers who have no money, by giving her enough benefits to live, eat and function. Yet it resents and pities her for having the audacity to exist outside of the middle-class norm. As usual, society kicks down. Family breakdown and the imagined consequences of it (crime, autism, terrorism, whatever) are to blamed wholly on “single mothers on benefits”. The absent father is forgotten, mainly because you can’t really spot a father who doesn’t help bring up his kids. Yet a woman (who, interestingly if the child is sitting beside them, DIDN’T desert the children) is held as wholly and completely responsible for this ‘complex and deep-rooted problem.’
Tanya Gold debunks some of the myths around single parenthood, particularly the idea that a lot of young woman get pregnant to get a council flat: only 3% of single mothers are teenagers – the average age is 37. The majority of mothers (55%) had their children within marriage. 46% live below the poverty line, compared to 24% of families with two parents. A majority (57%) of single parents work and, once their children get to 12, this rises to 71%.
So, what is this ‘deep-rooted and complex’ problem that Melanie Phillips and co. continue to bring up? Admiring a woman for bringing up a child by herself is, to Phillips, ‘unfair and perverse’ and a sign of feminism gone mad. Instead of treating them with a slither of humanity, we should end any benefits that support them. And why should they be punished? Because, Phillips says, ‘fatherless families cause pain and misery to everyone. They damage children. They hurt men. And they also hurt women.’
Why do they hurt men? Literally, why? She doesn’t say, because it’s a piece of crap, based on some weird paranoid notion that women pray on men to get pregnant so that they can begin this life of increased difficulty and poverty. The focus here is on ‘fatherless families.’ Families without fathers are bad, primarily, because they are without a man. Children are brought up all over the country by a single woman who does not need the security and support of a husband - and this is threatening and perverse because it makes his role redundant. Fathers who bring up children on their own without a woman, in comparison, are greatly admired. My close friends who were brought up by a single father note the constant need to valorise and turn him into a hero ; he is given a biscuit and pat on the head every single day for not walking out on his kids. The same shouldn’t be done for women; it’s bad enough that men are patronised by people who seem surprised that they didn’t shove their kids straight into social care while they swanned off to
Ibiza with a hot woman they met down the pub. However, single mothers should be shown a smidgen of the kindness and respect awarded to single fathers, rather than being held as a scapegoat for a small minority of women who sit around drinking/smoking and hurling abuse at their kids. You wouldn’t blame someone who was an ethnic minority because a small number commit crimes, you wouldn’t blame every Muslim because a few became terrorists and by that same measure, you shouldn’t blame a single mother because a few of them are shit.
Phillips softens at this point. In an attempt to not appear like the evil bitch-hag she is, she switches from the all out damnation of single mothers and, suddenly, in a last ditch attempt to prove the need for a conservative family, becomes sympathetic:
‘At the bottom of the social scale, lone mothers are often trapped in loneliness, depression and poverty, and – along with their children – are far more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse.’
We all knew she had a heart somewhere. So these women, who exist at the pond-weed level of society, despite the fact that most of them juggle work and raising children alone, actually need our protection to prevent them from being lonely, depressed and poor. You can replace friendship, family, prozac and money with a man that you don't love or who doesn't love you. Phillips now recognises that single mothers live in poverty, despite her earlier demand to remove their benefits despite the fact that they very rarely have the capacity to work full time. But, the reason for forcing families together is because you are actually stopping women being trapped in loneliness and depression. Right.
Because none of our grandmothers faced loneliness and depression? No-one living in a forced family unit for the sake of their children faced abuse and sadness in the 40s? Give me a break.
Yes, the statistics for domestic abuse have risen at the same time as more marriages break down. This is because people now have the right to report it – whilst violence within the household has become less acceptable and is listed as a crime in itself. It’s like saying ‘rape in relationships has risen since the 90s, at the same time as women’s rights were growing’. Rather than seeing that statistics for rape in relationships grew at the exact point that it became illegal in 1991, thereby allowing it to be listed as a reportable crime rather than ‘just one of those things’? The only difference is, women and men have the right to walk away from destructive relationships now, even if they don’t always do this. And that is a brilliant thing.
A loveless relationship does not benefit the adults involved in it or the children who have to see it. It is an infringement on your human rights to be forced to stay in a relationship to keep the likes of Melanie Phillips happy. This is what makes us a modern country. And children have the right to be raised by a parent who loves and appreciates them. They do not, however, have the rights to a picture perfect family and most of them would not want to exercise this right even if they could - because they are always the observers of what goes on behind closed doors. Some of my closest friends were raised by single mothers and became the most beautiful people I know. Yet some people in England were raised within a nuclear family and still turned out like Melanie Phillips.