LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Single mother - Katherine Fawcett with son, Brody Cross and their dog, Bella
Date of photography: 27th April 2017
Katherine is raising Brody, her little boy, on her own. Many would see this arrangement as unideal but might not living within a supportive community, of which they feel a real part, be better than prolonging a dysfunctional marriage or long-term relationship? To dispel some of the UK myths about single parenthood, I thought it would be helpful to quote some statistics published by Gingerbread, the single parents’ charity: these indicate that there are about two million single parents in the UK, making up about 25% of all families; from these, the great majority (around 80%) are single mothers. Contrary to popular belief, only 2% of single parents are teenagers. A less gratifying statistic is that almost 50% of children in single families live in relative poverty, compared with around 25% of children to couples - it is hard to survive these days on but a lone salary. There is still a widely-held view, especially amongst ‘small c’ conservatives, that children are best raised within a nuclear family and that every boy needs a male role model. Kate finds these sorts of statements inaccurate and offensive, for Brody certainly does not lack male role models: Kate has three brothers and a father, and all these men are closely involved in her life with Brody.
Whenever the topic of single mothers is aired, the facts tend to get overshadowed by politics and strong religious or moral postures; instead of accepting this arrangement as but another form of ‘the family’, there is a tendency to see it as inferior to the utopian ideal of the so-called ‘nuclear family’ - classically, mother, father and 2.4 children. Single parenthood is, after all, hardly a new phenomenon: during the 17th and 18th centuries, over one third of all children in English, French and Spanish villages lost one of their parents during childhood, either through war, disease or childbirth mortality. In 19th-century Italy, in the region of Milano, this figure rose to 50%. And, of course, one way or another, society coped. What is becoming clear in many of the stories told by parents in this project was probably always true: children will grow up into happy, well-adjusted adults in any environment where they are loved, supported, and cared for.
To dispel some of the UK myths about single parenthood, I thought it would be helpful to quote some statistics published by Gingerbread, the single parents’ charity: these indicate that there are about two million single parents in the UK, making up about 25% of all families; from these, around 80% are single mothers. Contrary to popular belief, only 2% of single parents are teenagers. A less gratifying statistic is that almost 50% of children in single families live in relative poverty, compared with around 25% of children to couples.
It is interesting to observe that in Denmark, where parents not only enjoy 52 weeks of parental leave but also receive generous welfare payments and free or very inexpensive childcare facilities (85% of mothers return to work) single parenthood is not frowned upon, it is accepted as normal. Another fascinating Danish statistic reveals that almost 10% of women there decide to conceive through artificial insemination because they are unable to find a suitable male partner or simply do not wish to enter into a conventional family arrangement. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in Denmark there is simply no stigma attached to being a single mum whereas in the UK, the historic perception of the single mother as a ‘fallen woman’ lives on within the more religious and conservative echelons of society.
I have already featured a ‘Single Father’ story in this project, and I encourage you to read it, but to learn about the experience of being a single mother, I headed to Brixton to meet Katherine Fawcett, at her home with her lively six-year old son, Brody, and their delightful little dog, Bella. I was keen to discuss what stigma is still attached to being a single mum today but also to hear how she became a single parent in the first place, and how she manages to cope.
Kate is a smart, highly articulate young woman who radiates confidence and warmth. As soon I happen to mention stereotyping, she delivers her first salvo: “We are seen as benefit cheats raising benefits babies. We are told that we only got pregnant in order to get a flat that we wouldn’t have got otherwise. We are told that single mothers only get pregnant because they want something to love, that they only want a baby, because nobody loves them. Believe me, I’ve heard it all.”
I asked her to tell me something about herself, which she did willingly: “I was born in London, grew up on the Stockwell Park Estate, have lived here for the last 32 years, and now, as well as being a resident, I work on the estate too.”
I asked her how she felt, living on one of the most notorious estates in Britain where, during the worst of times, not even the Police or the emergency services would attend to an incident without an armed escort. Kate responds with: “Well, at that stage, we were almost the only white family living here but whatever people have told you about this estate, it was my home. It has given me some real lessons about life and about people; it taught me to be humble; and, it taught me not to limit myself to walking in one circle when I could walk in many circles. We were a modest family but we believed in self-education; indeed, lots of the folk in this community are surprisingly well-educated, but some people just have a down on us because of the estate’s past reputation. In spite of that, we are an extremely diverse community and it’s the sort of genuine community where we actually do care for our neighbours, and where we’ve always helped one another out when it comes to raising our children. There are times when we all need a bit of help, especially those of us who are single parents, and it really is nice to know that you can turn to you own community in times of need without any fear of being judged, or being seen as unable to cope. That is the major thing I have learned living here: at Stockwell Park Estate, we might not all look the same, and we might sound different, but we’re all going through, sharing in, the same struggle.”
“My parents managed to get me into a school across the river, in Pimlico; they felt that I would have more of an opportunity to meet a greater variety of people, and they were right. Like Stockwell Park, the school was very diverse, but it was a very different mix: the students were drawn from a broad range of class backgrounds, including working class, middle class, and upper class, and this gave me a much better insight into the world at large. As I’d been a successful member of the school’s army cadet force, a corps of the Grenadier Guards no less, I was asked to decide whether I wanted to join the military, via the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, or to stay on and go to university. I chose neither and, at the age of 16, I decided to go to straight into work instead; I have never regretted it.”
“You see, I always loved my sneakers; I became a sneaker connoisseur and very soon, all the designers knew about me: I was the girl in Brixton who was trendy, who knew her sneakers, and who also knew those who had their fingers on the pulse of the kids who were buying them. First, I worked in a premier store in central London; then I got a job in the first sports store to open in Brixton; and I became a reseller of sneakers too. Mind you, I also knew all about, and shared in, London’s most exciting night life. Over time, I got to know most of the best DJs, and lots of the promoters. Eventually, I purchased my own lease on the most famous nightclub in Brixton. I had an advantage: I was well connected locally but I was still a fresh face, and I had none of the criminal connections so often associated with these kinds of establishments. The place was very successful and, naturally, I employed local DJs - regrettably, I became romantically involved with one of them. He had also grown up in the same community as me, described himself as ‘blackanese’ (ethnically Caribbean and Chinese, originating from Jamaica) and was only a few years older than me. It was a bit of a whirlwind romance and the resulting pregnancy was certainly not something I’d planned.”
“Initially, we lived in my place and I’m sorry to say that the love story started to unravel all too soon. After only three months, he hit me for the first time. One of my previous relationships, when I was younger, could have been described as ‘volatile’, but it certainly wasn’t violent. This was the first time that I’d been struck by any partner, someone who could overpower me, and I must confess I was in absolute shock. Of course, he was full of remorse afterwards but for me, alarm bells were ringing. I soon discovered that he was a father already and that his child had been taken into care, though he blamed his former partner, the child’s mother, for that.
As time went by, the violence continued but now, heavily pregnant, I found my ability to confront the problem was more and more limited, and there was always the hope that things would change once our child was born. However, by the time Brody came into the world, I had discovered that it was in fact his violence in the previous relationship that led to their child being taken into care. To my horror, if not entirely to my surprise, the first person I saw after a difficult labour, hovering above my bed, was someone from Social Services. Basically, they gave me an ultimatum: either leave this man or have my child taken away from me. Thankfully, they didn’t carry out their threat and we carried on living together for another two years, even though the violence continued - the birth of his little boy had changed nothing. The longer we were together, the more I discovered that he was a deeply damaged person, and someone who would damage everyone else in his path. I felt that he was already starting to have a bad effect on our little boy, so the relationship really had to be brought to an end. So that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t an easy decision but it had to be taken.”
“Now I was on my own. Though it was a great relief, I found myself suffering from major panic attacks almost every day. Only then, did I become properly aware of the enormity of what had happened to me and to my child, a child who, even a number of years later, still suffers from separation anxiety and easily gets very sulky. The Courts have ruled that Brody is not allowed to meet his father but I am encouraging him to communicate with his dad via iPad - I feel it is important for him to know who his father is.”
I asked Kate how she managed as a single mum: “It was a hard few months to begin with; I struggled financially because Brody’s father didn’t contribute anything. I was also having to struggle to regain my own confidence. But that was the only time I ever had to live on benefit; I really hated the feeling that I was dependent on the State, it was contrary to all my principles. Thankfully, things are much better now that we have our own flat, which is on the Estate, and I am now actively involved in the community here every single day. I work as a personal trainer and I run a community-based ‘Boot Camp’ which is free for residents and is aimed at getting them thinking about their own health, eating habits and, indeed, their future. I work across the age range, from children to people in their seventies, and with people from all ethnic backgrounds. I liaise with the NHS and with the Probation Service and, in a strange way, I feel I am following in my mother’s footsteps, for she was instrumental in setting up the Community Trust that made such transformative changes on the Stockwell Park Estate possible.”
I raised the widely-held view, especially amongst ‘small c’ conservatives, that children are best raised within a nuclear family and that every boy needs a male role model. Without even a moment’s hesitation, Kate replies: “I find these sorts of statements offensive, though you do hear these kinds of things quite a lot. I am certain that Brody doesn’t lack male role models: I have three brothers and a father, and they are all closely involved in my life and in Brody’s too. I also know plenty of mothers who just won't have men around at all - they are both mother and father to their kids - and their children grow into perfectly well-adjusted adults. And I speak from personal experience: I haven’t only been raised by my own mother and father but almost as much by our neighbours, my friends’ parents, the lollipop woman, and the guy who ran the summer camp. They all helped to raise me and they all did everything they could for us. I even learned how to cook from Afro-Caribbean families on the estate - I have a mixed race child and I think that understanding the different races and their cultures is very helpful. Having lived alongside so many black men and women all my life, I almost know what to tell him myself. I feel that it is important that my son understands his ethnic background but Brody is being raised exactly the same way as I was raised, in exactly the same place, and with the grandchildren of the people who raised me. It is very much a multicultural community and I am deeply rooted in it.”
Text edited: 20th July 2017
Page modified: 2nd April 2019