Ireland has the second highest percentage of children raised by single parents in the industrialized world.
It follows hot on the heels of the United States’ figure of 25.8% with 24.3%; the average in other developed countries being almost half that. Shannon Duvall looks at the plight of lone parents in Ireland today.
Moms have always had it hard. We know it because they tell us. From the time we can decipher language we’re made well aware of what pains in the ass we are to rear; from having to feed, clothe, and wash us; to entertaining, educating, and disciplining our bonzo little minds. As children we are, all of us, ungrateful, hyperactive, inattentive and just plain weird. Moms take it in their stride, and throw in the half-truth digs with a kind-hearted smirk whenever they can.
There isn’t a mom on the planet who has it harder than one who’s raising a little ball of bizarro all on her own, and the Irish ought to know. Most single moms in Ireland are reliant on the One Parent Family Payment, or OPFP, a weekly benefit from the state that has long been a part of the Irish Social Welfare system.
Currently, this stands at €130, having been reduced from last year’s weekly payment of €146.50 with the introduction of tough new cuts and penalties to all Social Welfare recipients under Budget 2012. If €130 a week for a mother and her child doesn’t seem like much to live on, that’s because it isn’t; however, in many cases a lone parent has no choice but to subsist on it anyway.
Nearly a quarter of Irish children rely solely on one person to make ends meet so that they can grow up healthy, wise and well-rounded. As it turns out, of that number, the majority of single parents in this country are women, and a massive 16.6% of them are finding it so difficult to make ends meet alone that they are living in consistent poverty. For a country that so often boasts a consistently high standard of living, this seems difficult to believe. That is, until you talk to the women affected.
A mother’s work is never done, goes one line, prompting the obligatory eye-rolls. I have a friend whose mother liked to remind her children at any opportunity (mostly when they were acting like brats) that they owed her their lives. Effective. I was told my mother liked me best when I was asleep…read: unconscious. Nice one, Mom. Fact of the matter is that it’s almost certainly true. Because raising a child is like going through military basic training for 18-odd years…backwards. And naked. On peyote. Yep, moms have it hard.
Roisin, 31, from Dublin, starts her day at 8 am with her 9-year-old son Joe, whom she rouses from sleep to help get ready for school. Roisin and Joe live in Wicklow, having relocated to what she refers to as “a very rural” area after giving up on paying the high cost of renting in Dublin city. Despite the lure of lower-cost housing, Joe now cannot take public transport to school so Roisin must drive him there each day and collect him in the afternoon. After dropping him off, she returns home and resumes work on portfolios for her mosaics project Tiny Pieces, which she works on until it’s time to pick Joe up. In the evening they do homework together and she makes dinner. When Joe goes to bed she resumes work on her art. So far, she says, she hasn’t made any money from the projects and doesn’t hold out much hope of earning a stable income from the venture.
Roisin is a qualified special needs assistant but is unable to secure work due to scheduling constraints with her son’s schooling and the unaffordable cost of childcare. Plus, any extra income is closely monitored by the DPS, and benefits are quick to be suspended or withdrawn altogether if an OPFP recipient is suspected of earning wages from other sources that exceed a certain, some would say absurdly low, amount.
“I’ve worked part-time on a number of occasions, but it’s always caused more trouble than it’s worth,” says Roisin. “There are only a certain number of hours you are allowed to work (and still receive the payment). Over Christmas I worked to make some extra cash and even though I was working below the number of hours allowed they stopped my payments and put me under investigation from January until March. My parents had to support us until it was sorted out.”
Harsh policies such as this one not only inhibit a single mother’s financial ability to care for her child, it also makes it very hard for her to act as a positive role model. Roisin says she is constantly overdrawn. “I often get bailed out by my parents. I don’t know what I would do without them.” Concerns like these might seem to an outsider to be fairly standard for someone in Roisin’s position, but they have taken on a much larger significance since last December for them. In fact, Budget 2012 has brought with it so many cuts that directly affect one-parent families that they stand to be the most directly impacted group in the Republic.
Single Irish parents and the many organisations that support them are balking at the enormity of the hardships they now face, and, while they scramble to create solutions for those most in need, they are also finding themselves asking why certain groups have seemingly been singled out and penalized for ending up in a circumstance that would not have been their choice. Relationships come and go. Love affairs ignite and often burn out, and it’s very rarely pretty or painless. In many cases, especially when a child is the result of such a relationship, the parents will choose to separate for the good of the child, sparing a young heart and mind the anguish of arguments, bitterness…or worse. The structures in place in Irish society that help to support those who would make such tough and selfless decisions have long been something to admire, and now they are at risk of collapsing to a point where parenting on one’s own in this country would be a nearly impossible choice.
Sherie De Burgh, Director of counselling at onefamily.ie, points to the government’s inflexibility at the root of the crisis. While the Irish government’s stance on the issue seems to be that cuts to benefits will eventually restabilise the economy, Mrs. DeBurgh believes they are taking a “very short-sighted view to solving the problem”. Without a restructuring of services and supports in place for the struggling, she feels, and more flexibility for those who would avail of them, single parents who “actually want to work and be independent and set a good example for their children will always be on the poverty line”.
OneFamily.ie and other groups such as SPARK (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids), aren’t taking the measures lying down, however. Michelle Frawley, an administrator for the group, has already seen positive progress as a result of SPARK’s dedicated campaigning. Their highlighting the discriminatory nature of the exclusion of single parents from participation in programs offered by Jobsearch.ie has led to a reversal of Jobsearch’s qualification policy. A statement issued recently by Joan Burton has suggested that until satisfactory childcare options are implemented, the reduction in age of payment to 7 will be put on hold, to remain at the current cut-off of 14. This has been as a direct result of SPARK’s mission to “empower and support, advocate and campaign…for the rights of single parent families”. Says Michelle Frawley, “We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”
OneFamily.ie are now offering a promising one-year back to work/education program which helps single parents focus on confidence-building, interview skills, CV update and other modern workplace practicalities; and also provides counselling services, an on-site crèche for toddlers, and even college course shadowing to help a parent decide which career will be right for them . New Futures aims to be a complete package, even tailoring their course (from 10 am to 1 pm) around primary school hours, but the challenges and limitations of what an organization can do without support from the government remain. For now, most are trying to stay positive.
“I have a huge garden out in the country,” says Roisin. “I’m learning to grow my own vegetables. I’m becoming something of an expert on how to stay healthy on a budget. I just want to raise a happy and well-rounded little boy…and eventually gain employment. Having a child doesn’t stop you from pursuing your dreams, it just takes a little longer (to do it alone). It’s great having a little buddy come along for the ride.”