GO­ING SOLO

With one in four Kiwi chil­dren be­ing brought up in a sole-par­ent house­hold, sin­gle par­ent­ing is be­com­ing more and more com­mon. PAULETTE CROWLEY talks to three par­ents who are steer­ing the ship alone

Little Treasures - - NEWS -

We talk to three par­ents about rais­ing chil­dren on their own

Twenty years ago, Cindy* was 29 when she un­ex­pect­edly fell preg­nant to a guy she was dat­ing ca­su­ally. “I knew straight away I would keep the baby. I had al­ways wanted to be a mum, and even though I thought I might be mar­ried to do that, I de­cided to go ahead, even though the fa­ther wasn’t keen to be in­volved.” De­spite her con­fi­dence, she found par­ent­ing de­mand­ing for all the usual rea­sons of scant re­sources and per­sonal sup­port. “But what shocked me more than any­thing was the judge­ment I got around be­ing a sole par­ent, even from my fam­ily and friends. In their eyes, I had sud­denly been de­moted from bright, young ed­u­cated pro­fes­sional woman to a ‘solo mum’ – some sort of sec­ond-class ci­ti­zen. I was seen as a drain on the sys­tem be­cause I was on

‘I gave so­ci­ety a beau­ti­ful, rounded pro­duc­tive hu­man be­ing, but I was looked down upon the whole time I par­ented her. It was aw­ful’

a ben­e­fit for a while, and not so­cially wor­thy ei­ther: all of my cou­ple friends dropped me like hot­cakes. They didn’t know what to do with me any­more.” Cindy felt that two-par­ent house­holds were deemed more ac­cept­able, and openly cel­e­brated for con­tribut­ing to so­ci­ety for bring­ing up chil­dren. “But I did the same thing – I worked hard and put my heart and soul into bring­ing up my daugh­ter. I gave so­ci­ety a beau­ti­ful, rounded pro­duc­tive hu­man be­ing, but I was looked down upon the whole time I par­ented her. It was aw­ful.” Thank­fully, so­ci­ety’s view of sin­gle par­ents is chang­ing, prob­a­bly be­cause more of us are do­ing it. In fact, with one in four New Zealand chil­dren be­ing brought up in a sole par­ent home, and that fig­ure grow­ing, it’s fast be­com­ing a big­ger part of New Zealand so­ci­ety.

Four smil­ing faces at the break­fast ta­ble ev­ery morn­ing

“I am the essence of calm” has been an im­por­tant mantra for long-time sin­gle par­ent Jenni Cham­bers, es­pe­cially when her brood of four chil­dren – Nico (14), twins Sea­mus and Grace (9) and Merri (8) – was very young. “Peo­ple say to me, ‘Oh my god, how do you do it? It must be so hard!’ And it is hard, but the way I do it is one day at a time, and if that’s too hard, one hour at a time, or even 10 min­utes.” Al­though im­mensely proud of her lively bunch of Wai­heke Is­lan­der kids, bring­ing up four kids on her own is not how she thought her life would work out. An un­ex­pected preg­nancy at the of age of 25 brought Nico – also a Lit­tle Trea­sures cover baby – into her life. Sur­prised yet de­lighted, she moved in with her par­ents for sup­port, which is where she met her hus­band-to-be when Nico was 13 months old. “Mum had a big tree cut down in the back gar­den. There was a nice-look­ing ar­borist, we made our ac­quain­tance and moved in to­gether!” she laughs. The then-happy cou­ple de­cided to move from Auck­land’s North Shore to Wai­heke Is­land. “I was go­ing to put Nico in kindy and get a lit­tle part-time job, but then I fell preg­nant with the twins.” Jug­gling two newborns and a preschooler, all in a new com­mu­nity where they didn’t know many peo­ple, soon di­alled the pres­sure up in the fam­ily.

FOUR KIDS FIVE AND UN­DER

‘No more ba­bies’ was the mes­sage ring­ing in her now-ex’s ear as he booked in for a va­sec­tomy. “But four days be­fore he had it, I found out I was preg­nant again. Nico was five and the twins were nine months old. Our mar­riage just started to fall apart, and we broke up when Merri was about six months old.” The union had lasted five years but the break-up was ac­ri­mo­nious and Jenni felt un­sup­ported: phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially. De­pres­sion kicked in, which was not helped by be­ing highly anaemic. “It sucks that my mar­riage fell apart be­cause I modelled my re­la­tion­ship on my par­ents’, where you find that one per­son, marry them and that’s it for the rest of your life. Peo­ple look at re­la­tion­ships as dis­pos­able, and they’re get­ting into re­la­tion­ships in a dif­fer­ent way.” De­spite “try­ing her guts out” to make the mar­riage work, in the end, Jenni knew leav­ing it was the right thing to do. “You’ve got to do what’s right for your kids. Be­ing sub­jected to toxic sit­u­a­tions is not good for them be­cause they’re like lit­tle sponges.” But par­ent­ing alone is not all bad, she has found. “It’s a dou­ble-edged sword. I’m a lit­tle bit sad that I don’t have a part­ner to share it with and I don’t have that back-up or some­one to sup­port me. But I won’t say do­ing it on your own is the hard­est part, be­cause it’s one of the best parts! I get them all to my­self: I don’t have to share them with any­body. Their lit­tle suc­cesses are all mine to cel­e­brate.” The hard­est part of par­ent­ing on her own, she says, is a com­bi­na­tion of a lack of money and keep­ing de­pres­sion at bay. “When I have those mad mo­ments, it’s al­ways be­cause of lots of lit­tle things that snow­ball into each other.” Look­ing after her kids is a full-time job, but tak­ing care of her­self is also a pri­or­ity. Part­time work in a su­per­mar­ket and a new health reg­i­men have re­cently seen her lose ex­tra weight and has made life a lot brighter. “Things are start­ing to roll along nicely.” Sup­port from oth­ers, which has in­cluded a lot of prac­ti­cal help from her par­ents and friends and from peo­ple on so­cial me­dia, is cru­cial. If Jenni has any ad­vice for those par­ent­ing alone, it’s to look after your­self as much as pos­si­ble and to get a sup­port net­work. “That could be fam­ily or friends, or cof­fee groups and play­groups. Get out there and find peo­ple in the same boat as you, be­cause the sup­port is in­valu­able.” So­cial me­dia is great when you’re home with a baby, too. “There are so many lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion now. You can put your lap­top up and Face­time while you’re feed­ing the baby,” Jenni laughs. “You are never alone, even though you may feel like it some­times.”

‘A lot of women are deal­ing with hus­bands who pos­si­bly make their lives worse be­cause they’re not help­ing, or hav­ing big ar­gu­ments!’

Sin­gle dads do­ing it too

There are plenty of dads who par­ent their chil­dren alone, but most share cus­tody with their ex-part­ners. How­ever, Rod Dock­ery was awarded sole cus­tody of Chay­dan (3½) when his son was two years old, and he’s keenly aware that so­ci­ety sees him as unique. “Most of it’s ac­co­lades be­cause there are far fewer dads who do this. I get a feel­ing that a lot of guys my age would rather just move to Aussie and for­get about rais­ing their kid. Other guys say to me, ‘There’s no way I could do it.’ I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t.” He has learnt that full-time par­ent­ing is re­lent­less. “At the start I thought I was Su­per­man,” he laughs. “Deal­ing with him be­ing a lit­tle kid isn’t the hard part, but deal­ing with me is. I get frus­trated that I’m so frus­trated. Some­times I think, ‘Oh, I thought I was way stronger than this’.” Aside from not enough sup­port and the yearn­ing for breaks he doesn’t get, Rod says jug­gling fi­nances is by far one of the hard­est as­pects of par­ent­ing alone. “When I was a week­end dad there were $15 take­away din­ners and this and that. Now I do it all off $100 a week, which is power, petrol and food, and what­ever else comes up. It’s liv­ing week to week.” Clothes are from the op shop and veges are frozen, not fresh. “You can’t just spend money on new shoes or a trip to see Grandma – that means the power bill doesn’t get paid.” De­spite the chal­lenges, Rod re­fuses to let it get him down. “I’m grate­ful that there’s a roof over our heads, lights to turn on and hot wa­ter. Money means noth­ing to me, but what I’m do­ing does.” The former prop­erty man­ager wouldn’t change be­ing a full-time fa­ther for any­thing. “The whole ex­pe­ri­ence is pre­cious. It’s the hard­est job I’ve ever done but it’s also the best and most grat­i­fy­ing job I’ve ever done. It’s to­tally changed me. I’m still on the jour­ney – he’s only three – but my life’s got a pur­pose and I feel like I’m re­ally needed.”

Choos­ing to go it alone

When West Auck­land jour­nal­ist Ruth Brown found her­self sin­gle again at 38, she made a de­ci­sion to take con­trol of her des­tiny. “I thought, ‘I seem to be not do­ing the hus­band thing very well but I don’t want to miss out on chil­dren as well as that.’” With no part­ner in sight and an aver­sion to one-night stands, Ruth set her sights on par­ent­ing alone and de­cided she would get preg­nant via the ser­vices of a fer­til­ity clinic. There was only one prob­lem – she needed a sperm donor. En­ter Sam*, a gay man in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a sperm donor, whom she met via a mu­tual friend. They spoke a few times over the next year, and even­tu­ally de­cided to go ahead with mak­ing ba­bies via a test tube (aka IUI – in­trauter­ine in­sem­i­na­tion) at a fer­til­ity clinic. Then 39, Ruth was de­lighted to fall preg­nant with a girl (now 10) on the first try. A cou­ple of years later, she wanted a sib­ling for her, and en­cour­aged Sam to be­come a donor to an­other cou­ple she knew. “I had friends who had chil­dren very close in age to Har­riet and knew they were go­ing to have an­other one. I was go­ing to be miss­ing out.” Even­tu­ally, Sam and Ruth de­cided to co-cre­ate an­other baby us­ing the frozen sperm from his orig­i­nal do­na­tion. This time, Ruth was 42, and the odds of her fall­ing preg­nant were slim. But two years and eight months after their first child, a sec­ond daugh­ter (now seven) was born, com­plet­ing the un­ortho­dox fam­ily. Ruth rel­ishes ev­ery mo­ment of moth­er­ing and has never re­gret­ted her de­ci­sion to have chil­dren alone. “I couldn’t imag­ine do­ing any­thing else. Of course, there have been chal­leng­ing mo­ments as a sin­gle par­ent, but I don’t think they were any more chal­leng­ing than they were for other moth­ers. A lot of women are deal­ing with hus­bands who pos­si­bly make their lives worse be­cause they’re ei­ther nit­pick­ing, or not help­ing, or hav­ing big ar­gu­ments with them!” she laughs. Be­ing in charge of par­ent­ing has its ben­e­fits. “Some­times there’s ten­sion be­tween the par­ents over how some sit­u­a­tions should be han­dled. When you’re alone there’s no is­sue there, be­cause it’s just you.” Though be­ing alone is sim­ple, Ruth is open to change. “I would like to be in a re­la­tion­ship but it’s so dif­fi­cult to find any­body.”

THE BEN­E­FITS OF TIME ALONE

A con­sol­i­da­tion of ma­tu­rity, fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, steady em­ploy­ment and a won­der­ful sup­port sys­tem that pro­vides her with reg­u­lar, much-needed bouts of time out, make her fam­ily life tick along nicely. “I get a lot of time off be­cause peo­ple help me out. That’s why it re­ally works: I get 24 hours off to just lie around if I need to. I’m one of those peo­ple who needs a lot of alone time – I’ve al­ways been like that.” Though she had some sav­ings, Ruth is also thank­ful for child­care sub­si­dies and fam­ily tax cred­its that helped her when the ba­bies were small, al­though she re­turned to work be­fore each girl turned one. How­ever lovely it is, fam­ily life is not ex­actly what she thought it would be. “I did think I would do things the tra­di­tional way but it just didn’t hap­pen, and I couldn’t wait. One of the doc­tors at Fer­til­ity As­so­ci­ates says he thinks men just don’t want to grow up these days. They want to be boys for a long time and don’t want to be com­mit­ted.”

The Cham­bers fam­ily

Rod with his son Chay­dan

Ruth Brown chose to be­come a sin­gle mum

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