Back in the 1970’s households that were headed by a lone parent were just 8%; however statistics show that in 2011 it had nearly tripled to 22%. With people becoming much more independent over the last 40 years, especially woman who are leaving it later to find a husband because they are focusing on their career, it is not surprising that the percentage of two-parent families has fallen from 98% in 1970 to 78% in 2011.
What started in the 19th century and was carried on up until the early 1970’s, if a woman was pregnant out of wedlock it was seen as socially unacceptable; therefore she would be sent to institutions that were better known as ‘mother-and-baby-homes’ until she gave birth and then the new born would be put up for adoption. The women would arrive six weeks before their due date and stay six weeks after giving birth. This would give them a chance to bond with their child but also unknowingly to the newly mother, let enough time go by to make sure the baby wasn’t in any way disabled as adoptive parents wouldn’t want a child that was ‘unhealthy’ in their eyes.
Single mothers in the 20th century were more common than people realised, although many people turned a blind eye because it was seen as tarnish on one’s family and it was only when they had to start paying for it that they started to care. While there were a few Acts introduced in the early 20th century to help single mothers, there were still huge difficulties. It was impossible for unmarried mothers to get a council flat since, as single people, they had fewer points’ than couples, until 1977 when the Housing Act was introduced.
I wanted to see the differences between single parent families from my generation compared to the generations before me. From my research I found out that no matter if you came from a religious background or not, if a woman fell pregnant without the support of a husband it was deeply frowned upon. My aim was to try and find a mother and/or child that were familiar with this predicament and find out whom and what helped them and how they got through it.
It was 1939 and the war had just started, 17 year old Mary Robinson moved to Belfast from the county of Armagh to work as a maid/nanny for a doctor. Her intentions were pure as she only wanted to bring back money for her family but in less than a year she became pregnant and had to move back home. She came from a very catholic village, where everyone knew everyone, so if the news broke out outside of the family she most definitely would be turned away. To save her daughter from embarrassment and maybe even the loss of a child, Mary’s mother took the child in as her own and they pretended that Mary had gained a new brother. In some sense Mary was very lucky that her family didn’t disown her because of her actions, but she had to watch her son Thomas grow up thinking that they were siblings. It wasn’t until Mary had married and Thomas was around nine or ten that he was told. Although Mary passed away years ago, Thomas is still very much alive being in his late 70’s. He spoke of how it was it was a pleasant surprise learning Mary was his mother and most of the reason for telling him was because she had married and it was now seen as acceptable. Being brought up by is gran was more suitable, not just financially but socially as well, but when his mother married and had kids of her own she he was now able to be her son. Coming from a small village it was unlikely that Thomas would’ve been put up for adoption, especially because Mary’s family accepted it. But the same couldn’t be said for the people who lived in the village and so if anyone did find out she could’ve been exiled. It was easier this way, and they were lucky that their family loved them no matter what. It was hard feeding an extra mouth and so Mary’s mother pushed her to find a husband as soon as she could. Life was better after her wedding day and more kids followed.
Fast forward to Liverpool in the 1990’s, the generation before were now parents, maybe even grandparents. Times had changed but to what extent? Catherine O’Donnell was pregnant and when she told her parents, her mother was disappointed but still fairly excited, even offering to buy her a wedding ring so no-one would know she was single. Whereas her father was deeply ashamed and when it came to the christening he didn’t attend. Although there might have been some tension, she still had the families support. However, now that people were finally noticing single parents, she had help from the government, unlike 1940’s Ireland. Back then she had family allowance of £45 a week, £40 for herself and £5 for her first born. By the time 1998 came she had her 3rd child and in the July, the Labour government abolished one parent benefit (the addition to child benefit for lone parents, originally introduced in 1976). They did this by incorporating one parent benefit into the main child benefit rates. It was abolished for new claimants and existing claims were frozen. Between April 1997 and April 2003, the rate of child benefit for the first child increased by 25.3% and the rate for subsequent children by 3.1%. Child benefit was phased, replacing family allowances and child tax allowances.
Support for single parents has got better over the last century but there is still a long way to go. People may see them as cunning and deceitful because of how the media portrays them but in the end they love their child and it is no-one’s fault that they are left to bring up a new life on their own. Whether it be a man or a woman, any help and support makes a difference.