Broken?

Kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.  It treats breakage and repair as part of an object, rather than something to disguise, hide or dispose of.

I was recently watching a presentation about the dangers of radicalisation by extremists in schools, colleges and universities.  The presenter asked the audience for their ideas regarding what could make a young person vulnerable to radicalisation.  I was thinking about things like poverty, lack of access to education, lack of employment opportunities, social and religious segregation, peer pressure and pressure from social media.  The first person to give his opinion said just three words: ‘single parent families’.

Of course, by ‘single parent families’ he meant families headed up by single mothers (according to Gingerbread, over 90% of single parent families are headed by women).  Single motherhood is frequently represented negatively – think kind, but chaotic, Karen in EastEnders or the spectre raised by the Tory Government in the 1990s of the single mother who ‘got herself’ (no men involved, apparently) pregnant in order to claim benefits and get a council house.  No matter how much more enlightened we are today, no matter how much we’ve moved on, no matter how much we dismiss the tired old stereotypes, single motherhood still has a whiff of the Jeremy Kyle Show about it.  Single fatherhood, on the other hand, is usually portrayed as something heroic – think Liam Neeson in Love Actually, or the overworked dancing dad in the recent BBC Christmas ads.  On Mother’s Day this year a picture even did the rounds on Facebook which said ‘a Mother’s Day shout out to all you Single Dads out there – you rock!”  Of course single dads rock, but so do single mums, in fact, so do parents in general.

The ease with which this person used the term ‘single parent families’ took my breath away a little bit.  This wasn’t just because the general nods and murmurings of assent his comment received from the audience suggested that quite a lot of people also thought that this was a primary concern, but also because I realised with a sudden shock that he was talking about families like mine.  I realised that other people: colleagues, teachers, health professionals, friends, might see any problems that my children were experiencing, and dismiss every complex reason that they might be struggling, as being explained by the single-parentness of their home life.

At about the same time, I visited someone for some professional advice and one of the first things this person had said to me was, ‘of course, you must inform them that your children are from a broken home’.  This term hit me very hard – was my home broken? Broken Home seemed such a harsh, almost brutal, term.  Was this really how he, and presumably other people, saw me and my kids?  Was this really all I had achieved after 25 years with E and 18 years of parenting?

The thing is, the reasons families (both single and ‘double’ parent ones) struggle are multitudinous and hugely complex.  Of course, some struggling families only have one parent but usually the reason they are struggling is not simply because of the fact that there is only one parent.  Single parenthood is a sometimes a symptom, but not generally the cause, of family problems.  Using the term ‘single parent family’ to signify a problem causing group, is not only lazy it also stigmatises around 25% of the population.

Mad as it sounds, until this point, it had never occurred to me that I was a single parent.  I had certainly never even considered that the home I provided for my kids, the home that we loved so much, was a broken one.  It felt like I had had another couple of labels imposed upon me by E and what he had done, in addition to the deeply humiliating ‘rejected partner’ one that he had already saddled me with.  Not only that, but these two labels dragged all sorts of negative associations behind them.  To add salt to my wounds I knew that nobody was seeing E as a single parent who presided over a broken home, on the contrary, he was a middle-aged man, with a trophy girlfriend and a carefree life in London.

To be honest, life at home after E left didn’t really change much in terms of what I actually, physically, did.  In fact, if anything, in some ways it was easier.  I didn’t have his endless piles of shirts and T-shirts to wash and iron and even the kids felt that life at home was more relaxed and less stressed without him there.  Because of the hours that E had worked, we were used to him not being there for long stretches of time and I had always done most of what Theresa May once described as the ‘boy jobs’ – I put the bins out every week, I did the accounts, I paid the bills.  The only thing I didn’t do was mow the lawn and I was rubbish at painting and decorating.  I also did all of what May would doubtless consider the ‘girl jobs’ (which I *think* was everything except the bins, the mowing and the money).

Of course, whilst my physical workload hadn’t changed much (I just added in lawn mowing and swearing at flat packs), psychologically it was different.  Once E had gone, everything fell to me and I found I was doing all of the emotional heavy lifting.  It did feel harder.  Before, even though E wasn’t around much, at least I could text him if I was having a bad day, send him a list of things we needed to get done at the weekend, send him a shopping list for that evening, or open a bottle of wine with him after a rubbish week.  He wasn’t there much, but I felt like I had his support – although, of course now, with hindsight, I can see that what I thought was his ‘support’ for me was probably something of an illusion on my part.

The thing is, I’m beginning to think that for me single-parenthood is a unique gift.  My relationships with my children have strengthened and deepened since E left, and whilst I never intended to be a single parent (who does?), I’m now glad that I am one.  I’ve realised that E was rather like Dumbo’s feather – I was capable of flying all by myself the whole time, I just thought I needed him to do it, now that I know I don’t need him, there’s no looking back.

I’m not denying that it has been difficult year, and I accept that I’m a single parent (although I personally prefer the term Lone Parent – it has more dash and swashbuckle about it) but I absolutely refuse the broken home label. The home that my kids and I inhabit is anything but broken. Our home is loving, peaceful, accepting and kind.  We probably are all a little broken and slightly scarred by what’s happened, but I like to think of those scars as hairline cracks and little breaks that are now sealed with a Japanese golden lacquer; they add to us and make us what we are, they embrace our past and they make us beautiful.

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