Why UK politicians now love single mums

Lone parents, once the easy target of the New Right, are now being championed by the family-fearing state.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

London Tube trains are carrying an advert for a sperm clinic based in the capital. One of its target audiences is ‘women contemplating single motherhood’. In other words, the clinic is offering women the chance to have a baby without even having to have sex with a man, let alone forge a long-term relationship. So far at least, there have been no shrill denouncements in the Mail or the Express, no junior Tory minister condemning such ‘immoral behaviour’. Clearly, the days when moral opprobrium would be heaped on unmarried women who raise children alone are long gone. Today, in fact, it is more likely that a Conservative minister criticising single mums would be booted out to the back benches.

Indeed, a Centre for Social Justice report published last week on the rise of single-parent families in the UK struggled to make the headlines. Aside from a technical complaint that family break-ups cost the taxpayer ‘£46 billion a year’, no public figure felt sufficiently confident to make a judgement about single-parent households. Many commentators, preferring a culturally relativistic stance, argued that single-parent households are as good as the nuclear family.

This eager toleration of single mothers might seem like a welcome and progressive development. Yet there is something odd about the fact that the official acceptance, even encouragement, of single mothers goes hand in hand with suspicion of intimacy and autonomy in the nuclear family. It’s because the journey of single mothers from being social pariahs to being socially accepted is often guided by the same impulse as that which drives state attitudes to the family: namely, the impulse to regulate personal relationships.

It is 20 years since the Conservative Party declared open season on single mothers, blaming them for raising delinquent children and placing intolerable burdens on the welfare state. Although it was framed in the New Right language of individual responsibility, this attack actually represented a major opening shot in what is now called the politics of behaviour. Far from encouraging individual freedom and autonomy, the war against single mothers outlined what the authorities deemed to be acceptable parenting. There was a major panic, for instance, about single mothers going to work and leaving their children home alone.

By winning support against single mothers around the emotive issue of child welfare, the then Tory government made it legitimate to attack all parents for their parenting choices. Hence today, politicians and social-policy thinkers no longer single out lone-parent families as inadequate, but rather cast all parents as potential harmers of the next generation. The upshot here, though, is that if parental influence is viewed as malignant and ‘toxic’, it suggests that children would be better off with only one parent in a household rather than two. Although the state and politicians haven’t explicitly championed lone-parent households over the nuclear family, there are indirect initiatives that popularise the idea that women and children might be better off without men in the home.

As with the child-abuse panic, radical feminism has provided the state with the arguments and language through which adult intimacy can be viewed as problematic. In the 1980s, for example, radical feminists championed ‘matrifocal’ families (or single mothers) over the nuclear family, on the basis that women and children would be free of the threat of male violence and abuse. High-profile campaigns on domestic violence in recent years have all adopted this radical feminist worldview as common sense. So if the police and politicians are criticised for anything today, it is for not allowing women to have CRB checks on prospective male partners.

As the Centre for Social Justice survey revealed last week, parts of England now resemble feminist Germaine Greer’s ‘matrilocal community’, whereby only women take on the responsibility of raising children. Apparently in Sheffield and Birmingham, some 75 per cent of children are raised without a father or stepfather in the household. The high figure suggests that the appeal of single motherhood goes beyond poorer, working-class women. Many middle-class professional women also see single motherhood as preferable to the nuclear family. When the single-mother panic first emerged in the early 1990s, the fact that lone parenthood was a temporary arrangement was often ignored. Most divorcees with children quickly remarried and established step-nuclear family households. Back then, marriage or a long-term intimate relationship were things to which people aspired. Today, both are sometimes seen as best avoided.

When surveying the eyebrow-raising statistics about the predominance of single-parent households in some parts of the country, many commentators have rolled out the pop-sociology observation about a ‘lack of male role models’. That is, too many children are growing up without having a man to act as an authority figure. In single-parent households, women can act as authority and disciplinarian figures, too – it is patronising to suggest that they lack the gumption to do so. Furthermore, with women playing an equal role in wider society today, and men and women now having very similar characteristics, the idea that men pass on specific ‘masculine’ attributes is out of date. We don’t live in hunter-gatherer societies anymore. Nevertheless, the increasing absence of men in a family household is problematic for a number of other reasons.

Compared with the nuclear family, the lone-parent household is open to far greater state intrusion and regulation. Social workers, benefits officers, housing officers and, increasingly, teachers are all primed to keep a closer eye on lone-parent households. Conversely, lone parents are also keener to prove that they are as responsible and adequate as a married couple. Recent documentaries on single mothers showed that they were all receptive to parenting classes, Sure Start schemes and other official parenting initiatives. The willingness of single mothers to accept ‘support’, compared with the relatively autonomous domain of nuclear family, explains why politicians now lay off single mothers.

The problem for children in lone-parent households is that the weakening of parental authority has strengthened the authority of external state agencies. As Jennie Bristow pointed out recently, the problem of external authority, rather than parental authority, is that it has to be earned and thus can also be questioned. Family relations are ‘implicit, affective, emotional, physical; parental authority is all-encompassing in a way that official diktat never can be’. The outcome here is that in some cases, there is no one to exercise authority over younger generations.

It has to be said that, increasingly, men and women have given up their own adult authority and autonomy when it comes to child-rearing. The feckless, errant father has long been a familiar New Right trope used to explain the problems of modern Britain. But today, estrangement from child raising is evident across the social classes. Whereas playing the role of stepdad was part and parcel of setting up a new family home after the failure of a previous relationship, now both men and women are wary of reconstituting a nuclear family.

In today’s thirtysomething dating circles, it’s widely held that men will shy away from eligible single mothers on the grounds that they don’t want to raise somebody else’s child. Helping out with other adults’ children, once regarded as expected adult behaviour, is now viewed, thanks to the suspicions associated with adult-child relationships, as best avoided. Many single women will likewise be suspicious of any new man in their life in case they turn out to be a violent and abusive, especially towards their children. In the anti-romantic age, children can become human shields for single mothers determined not to become too involved with men. Relationships are now guided by expectations of impermanence.

In that sperm-clinic advert on the London Underground, the social acceptability of single motherhood is writ large. Yet it is underwritten by a wider cynicism towards adult relationships. No wonder politicians and state snoopers are quietly at ease with lone-parent families.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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