How The Right-Wing Press Made 'Single Mum' A Dirty Word

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
When I was 22, I got pregnant by an older friend who promised me he was infertile (I know). There was nowhere near as much conversation around abortion as there is now, and stuck in a maelstrom of regret and terrified of experiencing even more, I decided to go ahead with my pregnancy. Friends told me I was brave, but this wasn't a decision made out of courage; it was one made out of fear. I was angry with myself, angrier than I was with the father, which looking back, is ludicrous. After I made my decision, he sent me a stream of abusive emails then vanished, never to return.
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I was broken, my self-esteem shot. It wasn't the 1950s but I knew there was still stigma around single mums. When my bump appeared, I felt like I was walking around with my shame strapped to my front. If only I hadn't been so naive, I thought, as I left university and moved in with my mum, convinced I'd never make it back.
I didn't read right-wing newspapers but the narrative around single mums had somehow permeated my subconscious. As far as I was concerned, I was a failure, and it was all my own stupid fault. I was about to join a vilified, mocked and abused demographic, and my harshest judge was myself.
As it happened, single motherhood was nowhere near as awful as I'd imagined. I loved my baby immensely, and the nappy-changing I'd dreaded turned out to be alright, once I got used to it. Having a child when I was young and single wasn't easy, but it certainly wasn't the burden I'd imagined. Thanks to the local education authority, I could afford to pay a childminder so I could finish my studies. When my son was five months old, I began commuting the 70-mile round trip to university, graduating just a year later than originally planned.
Later, on a creative writing course, I discovered one of my classmates had written a 'poem' (stream of consciousness with random line breaks) about my writing about being a single mum. It ended with a line about it all being my own fault because I'd 'dropped my knickers'. These days, I would probably laugh at his audacity but at the time, my self-esteem took another hard knock.
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The 'dropped knickers' line is still going strong. In the past two weeks alone, I've found it in numerous comments under articles about single mums. Bizarrely, no one ever seems to mention dropped underpants or boxers. Another popular phrase in these comments sections is 'she should have kept her legs shut'.
This entire narrative is, of course, steeped in misogyny. A single father raising his child alone, or hanging out with it at weekends, is a hero. But what about the absent dads, the ones who do a runner and never return? What does society think of them? Well, they're invisible, and that's how they like it.
In particular, women who have children by multiple fathers are often called 'sluts' but what of the men who father countless kids with different mums? There are plenty of them around but they're not identifiable, because in many cases, they're not struggling to single-handedly raise the kids. And if they were? Well, they certainly wouldn't be called sluts.
If a single mother finds herself in court, her status almost always makes it into the resulting headline. 'Single mum' is a grubby label – so grubby that it pops up on porn sites. "Why pay for sex? Desperate single mums f**k for free!" Yet 'absent dad', a phrase that is barely even in our vernacular, is in neither the headlines nor the dark corners of the internet.
I spoke to Natalee Carlucci, a single mum from Liverpool who recently featured in Channel 5 documentary Who Needs A Man When You've Got A Spray Tan? (It's definitely worth noting that the show's working title was simply, and positively, Single Mums, Super Mums.) Natalee has six children, two of whom have complex special needs and are in and out of hospital, meaning working isn't tenable. "I worked and paid my taxes for years," she says, "I miss working. But I love my children and they're my responsibility."
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We spoke about the knock-on effect of having time off work for children's sickness. Contrary to what many people like to think, 57% of single parents work. Many more would love to, but face barriers like affordable childcare. I'm fortunate to have always been able to work (and pay my taxes) since graduating. One of the most difficult things I've found about being a single, working mum is the conflict between my job and my son's health. Thankfully, he has never been seriously ill, but recently he broke two bones in the space of a few months, meaning a lot of time off for fracture clinics. It affected my colleagues and the children I work with, and that filled me with guilt. I can only imagine what it must be like to have two children regularly being rushed to hospital or undergoing surgery.
After she appeared on the television, Natalee was the victim of online abuse, with people rolling out tired old tropes about her being a benefit sponge, and even speculating on the size of her vagina.
"Why would you even think about that?" she says. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but at what point does it stop?"
"I wanted to iron out the facts," she says, "I wanted people's understanding."
In the 10-minute video, Natalee explains in great detail how her children were the product of long-term relationships, and goes into detail about her children's health. She shouldn't have had to do this, but I understand why she felt it necessary.
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The vlog was picked up by tabloid newspapers. Through lengthy headlines, they managed to announce Natalee's unemployment and the fact that her six children were fathered by three different men, all before the article even began.
"I rolled my eyes," says Natalee. "I thought, 'Here we go again'."
The damage was done. Some people don't read any further than the headlines; many who do read the article will have already made up their minds. Natalee's attempt to defend herself had been modelled into something that instigated more of the hate she'd been trying to combat. Amazingly, she remains resolute: "I've been through so much, I'm made of strong stuff, and I'm just going to keep on being a brilliant mum."
My son turned 13 last week. On his birthday, he performed in the school musical. As I watched him singing boldly on stage, I felt incredibly proud of the fact I raised him alone, my fear and shame long gone. But I know that newer, less confident single mums are still battling judgement and hostility that has a deeply personal effect.
If people could just see past the bluster, they'd understand who single mums like Natalee and me really are: strong, independent women doing our absolute best. And perhaps that's why we make some members of society so uncomfortable.
Emily is the author of My Shitty Twenties: A Memoir, Salt Publishing
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