Alone Together: Single Parenting in the Lockdown
Caitlin Logan looks at the varied experience of single parent families in lockdown, from coping with school work, to keeping the children entertained, to managing the family dynamic in stressful times, and the extra challenges this brings when mental health issues or additional support needs are involved.
Although she started out with every good intention to stick to a routine where her son’s education was concerned, single mum and pupil support assistant Jennifer soon discovered this wasn’t a realistic goal in lockdown life.
Instead, she has taken the lead from his teachers, at a primary school in Fife, who have emphasised the need to make mental health and wellbeing the priority. “When this is taught about in history books I want him to say ‘oh I remember that, we were in the back garden every day’. I don’t want him to say ‘my mum was stressed out all the time’,” she says.
Jennifer separated from her ex partner years ago, so she and seven-year-old Aaron are “very used to being at home, just the two of us”, and she feels she is somewhat at an advantage due to her experience of working in schools. “It’s actually been a benefit as I can see what level he’s at.”
That being said, she has also accepted that home education will continue to be a “work in progress”. “It’s a completely different dynamic and there’s so many distractions at home,” she explains.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the pressure of cramming the working day and school day into one. “I do my work when he’s in bed at night, and I’m worrying I’m not doing enough for my work. I’m trying to please everyone but I have to put my son first.”
Jennifer’s main source of concern is what happens if she is asked to go back to face-to-face working before Aaron is able to return to school full-time. “There’s been talk I may have to go into a hub and drop my son at another. That stresses me out as it could put us both at risk, and the hubs aren’t educational.”
As for the exit strategy, in which it is suggested children will return to school gradually in keeping with social distancing guidelines, she worries about what this might mean for her financial situation. “My panic is if he’s in school half the days and I’m expected to work full-time. I can’t afford to work less hours.”
The challenges and dilemmas facing Jennifer and Aaron in light of the coronavirus pandemic are common among single parents, at a time when all parents are under increased strain.
Charity One Parent Families Scotland, which provides emotional and practical support to single parents, says it has seen a 300% increase in contact through its helpline and online chat service. According to the organisation, many single parents have raised concerns about their ability to work from home and educate and support their children simultaneously, while others have already lost income as a result of being unable to work without childcare.
For Zahada’s family, the loss of income has come from her 18-year-old son, who had been balancing part-time work with his college course before he lost his job due to the lockdown. With no rights to furlough pay as his boss had been paying him cash-in-hand, a third of the income supporting Zahada, her son, and her 17-year-old daughter has evaporated.
A single parent of many years, after escaping an abusive relationship, Zahada hasn’t been working for some time due to physical disability and mental health issues. The family is now living solely on her benefits, while her son is not entitled to social security because he is in education. This has only compounded Zahada’s stress during an unsettling time.
“I can cope without the TV, or with putting on an extra layer, but they [the kids] want the heating on, and they put the TV on. The next bill is going to be higher, and how am I going to pay for it?” she asks. She feels there should be more support for families in their situation, and fears having to tell the energy company she’s unable to pay. “I’ve never been in debt in my life,” she adds.
Zahada’s daughter, who is in her final year at an East Renfrewshire secondary school, is one of 140,000 children receiving free school meals during lockdown— at least until the end of the school year. But in Zahada’s view, the setup is not ideal: “They deliver a pack to the house each week and it looks like it’s not even £5 worth of food.”
She suggests the local authority should follow the approach of Glasgow City Council, which issues £20 Farmfoods gift cards to parents every fortnight to cover school meals. This, Zahada says, means “you have a choice and can use it wisely”.
Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland have both advocated for direct payments to be made to families entitled to school meals, arguing that this would allow for the most flexibility, as well as safety.
As it stands, Zahada finds herself having to choose between caring for herself and caring for her children. “We’ve had to rely on foodbanks, which we’ve not done in the past. I eat probably one meal a day because it means more money— even if it’s frozen food, you need to put it in the oven which is more gas. I’m on a lot of medication so I should be eating properly, but my kids are my priority.”
Glasgow Disability Alliance has said that this experience is typical of far too many disabled people, who have seen existing inequalities intensified by the COVID-19 crisis. A survey by the charity on the impact of the pandemic found that 40% of disabled people were worried about food, medication or money, and that many were struggling to pay bills or buy essentials in lockdown.
It is in this difficult circumstance that Zahada’s children are waiting— waiting for the SQA to determine whether her daughter has achieved the grades she “put everything into”, and waiting to find out how and when her son’s HNC will be assessed. Still completing lectures and coursework from home, Zahada is worried her son is “not on top of it and might not manage, because he can’t concentrate the same at home”.
For now, the family is getting a little more used to their new way of living. Currently observing Ramadan, the children are sleeping later, which is giving them all a bit more space from each other. “We’ve just got to make good of the situation we’re in right now,” Zahada says.
Furloughed Edinburgh supply teacher Joseph is thankful to have been insulated from any financial loss so far, but he is facing his own challenges as a single dad in the high-risk category for COVID-19. Widowed five years ago, Joseph is “shielding” at home with his 14-year-old and 19-year-old sons, and tensions are running high.
Joseph’s concerns are around his younger son Leo, who is meant to be starting fourth year and is finding it hard to cope. “The school has been excellent at providing work, but it has been almost impossible to get into it. He has some anxiety and emotional issues, and not being at school or seeing friends has added more issues.”
“Without a teacher, he won’t listen to me. It’s just a non-starter,” he says. Joseph fears it will take months for his son to get to where he needs to be, while schools will expect pupils to be “up to speed” when they return, which in Leo’s case will mean heading into an exam year.
Joseph feels that pupils like his son who were already struggling with school for any reason – be that emotional or additional support needs – are going to find it harder to catch up when classes resume. “They’re relying on the idea there is a home situation where people are learning— that’s a high demand to place in our situation.”
According to a survey by Young Scot and the Scottish Youth Parliament, two in five (39%) young people say they are concerned about their own mental wellbeing during the pandemic, while research by YoungMinds found that 83% of young people with mental health issues felt that their condition had been worsened.
In addition to the knock-on effect on schoolwork, Joseph feels that heightened stress during lockdown is impacting on his relationship with Leo. “It allows for more trigger points to be created for conflict. Before there was less time for that to happen as he was at school, so that can be difficult.”
Usually, Leo would be doing gymnastics, kayaking, or going to the cinema, and his dad feels that the removal of those options has only fuelled his anxiety. “All the strategies I‘d normally use to manage the situation and get them out and active and interested in anything aren’t there,” Joseph explains.
Instead, the family is finding new strategies; new and tentative ways of connecting . At first, when Joseph posted a video of himself on Tik Tok, Leo said he was “too old” for that, but when it received over 1,500 views he asked his dad to give him a “shout out”.
“My main surprise however was in the new connection I had found with my 14-year-old. It was like a new beginning in our relationship,” Joseph says.
According to the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, lockdown is particularly challenging for children with additional needs or mental health issues, due to a loss of routine and the absence of school support which is difficult to replicate at home.
June, whose 12-year-old son has dyslexia, feels that his North Lanarkshire secondary school has demonstrated a lack of support and understanding for his educational needs in the circumstances.
Already a ‘stay-at-home parent’ and recently divorced, June says she is solely focused on “educating, entertaining and looking after the emotional wellbeing” of her son and eight-year-old daughter.
But while June feels her daughter’s primary school has been proactive and provided plenty of resources, she has lodged a complaint to her son’s school about the difficulty in accessing information and guidance. “I’ve likened finding the learning materials to a treasure hunt without a map.”
“The school’s response is that the children were given the information, but I think it’s a lot to expect of children to retain that information. My son is dyslexic and his memory retention isn’t great,” she says.
June says that the work provided is the same for everyone, so there is no chance to differentiate for her son’s learning needs. Part of the problem, she feels, is the heavy reliance on digital literacy and access. “The assumption is that children know how to navigate their way through Microsoft Teams, which is debatable, and no information was given to parents.”
In response to these concerns, June says the Head Teacher of the school told her that primary pupils are able to work the software, a statement she felt was “quite offensive” and reflective of a failure to understand her son’s needs. “I think there’s going to be a disparity between children whose parents can support them through the digital age and people who don’t have access to a laptop or the internet,” she adds.
Raising the issue of the Coronavirus Act’s suspension of local authorities’ duty to provide education and additional support for learning for children, June says she is “concerned” about what “absolving schools of any responsibility” might mean for children like her son.
Even for those whose children are young enough not to be missing out on school, some parents are concerned about the impact that social distancing might have.
Scott, a 28-year-old photographer, lives in Edinburgh with his 18-month-old daughter Zara and his mum. Scott has been caring for Zara as a single parent for a little over a year, and he has noticed a change in her behaviour since lockdown began.
Normally, the two of them would be out every day at music classes, baby ballet, softplay, or meeting friends for lunch, and Zara had just started going to nursery. “She usually sees 50 people a week. Now we’re home all day every day and Zara is getting so bored,” he says.
“Classes are online but it’s not the same. She goes up to the TV to try to talk to the teacher and has a tantrum because she doesn’t get a reaction, and she’s not seeing her friends.”
While Zara is too young to understand what’s going on, Scott feels the lack of social contact has impacted on how she interacts with people. “Normally she’ll run with her arms up to people – she’s the friendliest, happiest baby you could meet – but now when we see our neighbours she won’t go near them. That’s a worry in my mind— I hope she goes back to normal.”
Dr Yvonne Skipper, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow, advised the PA news agency last month that lockdown “should not really be problematic [for children] if it only goes on for a couple of months, it should not lead to long-term problems”, while adding “the longer it goes on it’s more difficult to judge”.
For many parents, simply managing their own worries is half the battle. Scott says that he has limited the number of walks they’re taking because he’s so cautious of the risk of catching the virus or passing it on to Zara p(ictured above). “She was premature,” he explains. “She’s alright now, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘I’ve seen her in the hospital already, I don’t want to see her there again’.”
This makes going to the shops stressful, because Scott has to take Zara with him (although he lives with his mum, she is working from 7am till 6.30pm every day). “Thankfully I’ve not had any weird looks for having her with me, but I’ll disinfect the seat and whole trolley before I sit her in it and I won’t let her touch anything.”
These fears also influenced Scott’s decision not to continue the temporary job he had taken up at a supermarket after losing all of his photography bookings as events were cancelled or postponed. “It wasn’t worth the risk,” he says.
For now, Scott has gone from having a “comfortable income to zero” and has had to sign on to Universal Credit. He is thankful, however, that he has had support through the nursery, who have been delivering food and calling to check in, and through One Parent Families Scotland who have delivered masks for Zara.
As a single parent in lockdown, the days can feel particularly long for Scott as he has to be the sole carer and entertainer for his daughter from the moment she wakes. To cope with this, he has been getting creative and honing his professional craft at the same time.
“We’ve been doing photoshoots to try and pass the time: I’ve been dressing her up as Nicola Sturgeon, as a wee chef in a pot, a doctor in scrubs, Joe Exotic…” he explains. “It’s sort of like working from home.”
For most parents, whether they are balancing their caring responsibilities with paid employment or not, lockdown will certainly feel like working from home. For those doing it alone, Scott says, “it’s like a full-time job times two”.
Image credit: Scott Parker (follow at insta @scottandzara)