Around one in four families with children in the UK are single parent families, and the parent is largely a woman, typically in her 30s. Last year, a report by Gingerbread, the charity for single parent families, revealed how single parents’ aspirations can be thwarted by circumstances outside their control. The majority of single parents work but often have low-paid and sometimes insecure jobs, and struggle with childcare and affordable housing. Nearly half of single parents live in relative poverty and most don’t receive child maintenance from their child’s other parent.
It’s not all bad, though. For many women, being a single parent is a relief after a challenging relationship; an opportunity to be the one in charge and shape their children’s lives without any tension or drama, a chance to move into a new and happier life. The flip side is carrying the burden of responsibility alone, the lack of adult company and the inability just to pop out for five minutes without thinking.
Liz Knowles, 39, from Manchester had lived alone with her daughter Thea, 6, for a year and a half when she first considered sharing her home with someone in similar circumstances. "I first met Hayley online through a couple of Facebook groups and we got on really well," she says. "A few months later she’d posted that she’d split up with her partner of 10 years and she and her son were looking for somewhere to live. I had a spare bedroom, money was tight, I found life quite stressful having to do everything myself and when my daughter was in bed at night I felt a bit lonely."
By coincidence, Liz and Hayley met up at a gig and started talking. "What are the chances of that?" says Hayley Dunn, 42, who also has one child, 7-year-old Freddy. "We started chatting and realised we’d already connected on Facebook and she said she had a spare room if I was interested. I knew I wanted to share with someone. I was lonely when I split up with my partner and found the thought of living alone really daunting, so we got the kids together to see how they’d get on as obviously that’s the first priority. They just played together for hours so we decided to give it a go and it’s been a year already."
"I knew we had a lot in common," says Liz. "We have mutual friends who thought we’d get on well and they were right. We were both probably slightly apprehensive but everything went very smoothly and we have a similar approach to parenting. It can feel so overwhelming on your own and Hayley is so calm that it’s worked out beautifully. The only rule we have is that if it’s in the house, it’s fair game. We pool resources, have meals together and share responsibility for shopping, cooking and cleaning."
It makes total sense and it’s great having another woman to talk to – there’s no down side to this situation at all.
Hayley is equally enthusiastic. "Liz is a lovely nurturing person and I knew there wouldn’t be any drama. The kids tell everyone that they’re stepbrother and sister and they really like having someone to play with. It won’t be forever as my son and I share a room but I now know how easy it can be to share with another mum in my situation and make it work. This has been a total lifeline for me and now a couple of my friends who have seen how well it works for us have done the same thing. It makes total sense and it’s great having another woman to talk to – there’s no down side to this situation at all."
"We try our best to coincide child-free time," says Liz. "We still have separate lives but have also got to know each other’s friends so I feel I’ve gained a whole new tribe."
Natasha Smokcum, 41, was thrown into sharing with another single mum when her home was broken into and vandalised. "It was a horrific experience but it led to something brilliant," she says. "I had split up with my partner 18 months earlier and was living in the house we’d been in together with my sons Louis (10) and Nico (5). My ex and I had taken the boys on holiday and came back to find the house had been burgled and absolutely trashed. They’d put the plugs in all the sinks and turned the taps on and there was water dripping down the walls."
Fortunately, her sons didn’t see the devastation but it was clear that it would be months before the house was repaired and Tasha needed somewhere to live immediately. "I’ve been friends with Viv for 10 years and she suggested we move in with her and her daughter Alice (9), who’s at school with Louis, and see how we all got on."
That was last May and the experiment is clearly a success. "My boys have to share a room now but I don’t think that does them any harm," says Tasha. "We think it’s really good for the kids, although Alice had to adjust to them coming into her space and they had to get used to somewhere new. Sometimes they’ll play together really well and come up with amazing games and other times they’re too much in each other’s faces, but we think it’s a great life skill they’re learning at an early age. It helps them work through the need for personal space and to recognise it’s not okay to be horrible but it is okay to say, 'Don’t do that'."
The advantages for the adults have been so marked that Viv and Tasha are now planning to move to a bigger house together. "We hadn’t thought about this to begin with but this has worked so well that when my house is sold, we’re moving into a five-bedroom one together," says Tasha. "I’m seeing someone now and it’s interesting that there would be a societal expectation that the next step for us would be to live together, but that’s not going to happen for now as this arrangement is currently perfect for all of us. Both Viv and I are self-employed and want enough money to live on without taking too much time away from the kids. We’ve brought different things to this – I love cooking and that’s inspired her to do more. She loves to get up and do yoga and make smoothies and now I join her as it’s a lovely start to the day. The biggest benefit is the emotional support, someone to say 'Hey how are you?' and acknowledge me. Parenting is hard work for all of us sometimes and knowing the kids have someone else they love and trust is what we both enjoy."
Helen Duncan, 39, is in a slightly different position, with her ex finding it really hard to come to terms with her new situation. "I’ve been single now for a year and I’m just about to move in with another single mum who has one child," she says. "My two younger daughters, May (8) and Sophie (6) are with me, but our 12-year-old Cara has stayed with her dad and that’s not easy having them separated, although they see a lot of each other."
To begin with, being a single mum was everything Helen had hoped for. "I’d been trying to leave the relationship for a while, although he’s a lovely man and a great dad. Finding the courage to get up and go was really hard, especially after 20 years together, but it wasn’t working. Setting up a new home, organising commuting and childcare wasn’t easy, but I loved being the only grown-up. If the toilet needed cleaning or laundry done, I didn’t have to nag someone to help. I just did it."
A year on, Helen decided it was time to move on again. "You’re under curfew from teatime when you’re a single parent with young children," she says. "I can’t go to the shop and leave the kids so if we suddenly need a pint of milk or we’ve run out of bread, it either means a right trek or we don’t go. I’m looking forward to evenings when the kids are in bed and I can have a brew or a glass of wine with another adult. Or cook a lovely meal for someone who will appreciate it – unlike the kids who just want fish fingers – and on another day will do the same for me."
She’s also looking forward to having a little time to enjoy a new relationship. "I’ve recently started seeing someone new and I have no time to devote to them at all. I know the kids come first, but add work and chores and there’s very little spare over. I know that sharing with another adult will also add the great benefit of being able to babysit for each other and that adds an element of freedom neither of us has alone."