Stigma and Social welfare: The struggle of single mothers in the Republic of Ireland

DUBLIN — Framed by the front door of the Holyhead hostel, a little girl peeps through the glass, loose strands of her blonde hair falling from her ponytail. She watches the hustle and bustle of cars and people on Talbot Street, a pink pacifier bobbing in her mouth.

Above her, a woman sits on a windowsill smoking, casually flicking ashes from the butt of her cigarette. Down below, a sign taped to the glass of the door, in red, reads: HOUSE FULL — NO VACANCY.

The little girl cranes her neck, taking one more look at the pedestrians on the sidewalk before scampering up the stairs to her mother.

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The Holyhead hostel on Gardiner Street Lower in north Dublin. Photo by Liz Meuser 

Affordable housing shortages and soaring rent prices in the Republic of Ireland have left many homeless families seeking emergency housing in hotels and bed and breakfasts in Dublin.

The gap in deprivation rates among vulnerable adults, including lone parents, compared to the general population is larger in Ireland than in other European Union countries, a recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute, or ESRI, found. One-third of lone-parent families in Ireland were “persistently deprived” between 2004 and 2015.

In March, as part of a new policy intended to discourage prolonged stays in emergency accommodation, Dublin City Council announced it would no longer prioritize lone families for social housing. And although Ireland’s Department of Social Protection recently began implementing increases of as much as 5 euros a week to welfare payments in part of Budget 2018 measures, many recipients are still recovering from recession era cuts.

Such economic constraints — compounded with barriers to education, employment and affordable childcare access — have left some single parents struggling to make ends meet.

Their situation, in light of a May 25 vote to liberalize the anti-abortion language in the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution, sheds important light on the debate over reproductive rights and on Ireland’s complex history of attitudes to unmarried pregnancy and mothers. It shows what can happen to women and children when a woman decides to become a single mother with limited social support.

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Nearly one in four families with children in Ireland today are one-parent families, and about 84 percent of lone parents are women.

Many residents at the Holyhead hostel in north Dublin are mothers living in emergency housing with their children, including Theresa Gregg, 23, and Modesta, 31, who asked that her surname not be used.

Gregg has been living at Holyhead with her 4-year-old daughter Millie — the little girl in the window — and her 2-year-old son for almost a year after she left her mother’s house because the children’s noise upset her autistic brother.

Modesta, 31, and her 6-month-old daughter sit on her bed. Photo by Liz Meuser 

Modesta has been living at Holyhead with her 4-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter since July 2017.

Originally from Malawi, she came to Dublin in 2012 hoping to study business management. She had been saving to renew her visa, but after falling pregnant with her daughter, unable to manage work, she fell behind on school fees and rent. Out of options, Modesta turned to Focus Ireland, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless people.

Both Gregg and Modesta receive social welfare payments. Every Thursday, Gregg collects her weekly allowance of 250 euros at the local post office, allowing her to buy fresh milk, bread and groceries. Modesta collects 140 euros monthly in a child benefit payment on behalf of her son.

In 2011, cuts to the One-Parent Family Payment — a means-tested payment for lone parents — meant that parents would lose the OFP when their youngest child turned 7 instead of 18. In place of the OFP parents can transfer to another subsidy known as Jobseeker’s Transitional payment.

The change was intended to ease lone parents back into work but was initiated when Ireland was in recession, so instead it hurt lone parents who were already working.

“It was a disaster, frankly, and people are still getting over it,” said Karen Kiernan, CEO of One Family, a national organization that provides services to one-parent families.

Louise Bayliss, a single mother and founding member of the advocacy campaign Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Kids, or spark SPARK, said she remembers first hearing of the proposed cuts on an online single parenting forum.

“Have you seen the budget?” she wrote in a live chat. “This is going to devastate us.”

Her daughter, Sophia, would be among the first group of children to turn 7 under the new age restriction. By the end of the night, Bayliss and other lone parents had set up a Facebook group and official SPARK page. By the end of the week, they had organized their first protest.

“We just kept questioning, ‘How can this be an incentive to get parents back into work when the only ones affected are in work?’” Bayliss said.

According to Bayliss, the lack of affordability of childcare in Ireland leaves many lone parents able to only work 20 hours a week on minimum wage in order to avoid paying childcare costs. The added income drop caused by the budget cuts only pushed people out of work.

“There’s a significant drop in income, but there is no drop in income if you weren’t working,” she said. “As a working lone parent, they’re better off giving up work and becoming fully reliant on social welfare.”

While a number of the 2012 budget reforms and cuts have been softened, much still needs to be done to provide high quality services to support childcare, housing and pathways to education and employment for lone parents, Kiernan said.

“Our work really is about helping people parent their children well in difficult circumstances,” she said. “It’s really about the children.”

The key is looking into the needs of one-parent families and addressing issues of poverty and exclusion. Damien Peelo, CEO of Treoir, a nonprofit organization that works with unmarried parents, said support mechanisms need to be built rather than just throwing money at trying to get parents back into the workplace.

“In theory it is a great idea, but if supports aren’t put in place to match that, then it is just about shifting numbers,” he said.

Initial commentary on the budget cuts and SPARK’s campaigning was negative, Bayliss said.

For single mother of two Hazel Larkin, that reaction was part of a dominant narrative that women get pregnant deliberately to get state handouts.

“There’s this notion that single mothers automatically get a free house, that even if you only have the one baby, you get a house with four bedrooms and a garden, and it’s completely untrue,” she said.

Larkin went looking for women who intentionally get pregnant for her master’s thesis in sexuality studies. She said she had heard the story of free houses and decided to see if there was any truth to it. She spoke to local city councils, agencies that worked in deprived areas and young, lone single mothers. None of them had come across this phenomenon.

“It fuels animosity and resentment of women who are in situations where they’re raising children on their own, and the thing is, there are few women who would choose that,” Larkin said.

At Holyhead, Modesta’s life illustrates this point. She described plans to fill out paperwork to apply for social welfare, but noted that she must first call to make an appointment, something she can only do if she has enough cell phone minutes. But she needs those minutes to call Focus Ireland every day at 3:30 p.m. to extend her stay at Holyhead.

“It’s not like I want to be in this situation,” she said.

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Although each experience as a lone parent is different, many agree a social stigma still persists.

“There is a sense of you brought it upon yourself,” Larkin said. “That if you are a single mother, it is your own fault.”

Such judgment recalls the historical treatment of so-called fallen women in Ireland. Up until the 1990s, if an unmarried woman became pregnant, she could be sent to a mother and baby home and forced to give up her child for adoption. If a woman had no means of supporting herself, she could be sent to work in one of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.

Such institutions were part of what James Smith, associate professor of English and Irish studies at Boston College, considers a larger, state-sanctioned system that concealed and controlled women seen as a threat to idealized national images of a holy, Catholic version of Mother Ireland.

“Through these institutions, Ireland operated a system of social control that disproportionately impacted, penalized and punished women,” Smith said, “and held women responsible for conforming to Catholic morality and suffering the consequences for transgressions to that morality.”

Smith said survivors who emerged from these places and their stories speak back to a policy of confinement, one of secrecy, silence and shame where Ireland locked away embodied contradictions behind closed doors.

“We do have a very long history in this country of condemning women who happen to have sex,” Larkin said. “Whether that sex is rape or consensual, if it results in a child, that woman should be condemned forevermore.”

One Family, formerly known as Cherish, was founded by a group of unmarried, pregnant women who wanted to keep their children.

Kiernan said she could see a relationship between the past mistreatment of unmarried women and the realities faced by women with crisis pregnancies today.

“I think our treatment has generally been harsh and judgmental,” she said. “We have found it difficult in Ireland to trust women.”

Larkin says there hasn’t been enough generational distance since the last laundry closed in the 1990s and since the term bastard was removed from legislative language.

“Even though we like to think that we’re being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, we’re still very traditional,” she said.

Larkin sees what she calls Ireland’s anti-women, misogynist thinking as connected to the Catholic Church’s influence.

“This hatred of women doesn’t actually come from the doctrine, so we need to look at the certain interpretation of it,” she said. “We need to question why that is.”

According to the Catholic Church, sex is reserved for married heterosexual couples — a sentiment reflected in the Irish Constitution’s protection of the institution of marriage and legal recognition of it as the foundation of the traditional Irish family.

A children’s book depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus lies open on the floor. Photo by Liz Meuser 

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who will host the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August, has spoken out against the Church’s harsh treatment of single mothers. At the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass last month, he said that there was no ideal family, but rather an ideal of family.

Although a divorce referendum that ended the country’s long-established ban on divorce in 1995 and same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 indicated a push in favor of equality, Peelo said unmarried families still face a lot of stigma.

“The definition of family in the Constitution is husband, wife and children living together under marriage,” he said. “All the things that can stem from that in terms of how we structure our lives, our taxation, our family policies — they can be brought in line much closer together to create an illusion of equality.”

“But if you don’t change the fundamental constitution underpinning all of that, is that you’re still somehow an inferior family makeup.”

And while the abortion referendum is opening Irish women up to the possibility of greater control over their pregnancies and families, for some advocates it does not go far enough.

“I would like the debate widened up to full reproductive rights, including the right to have a child in dignity and not living in poverty,” Bayliss said. “The debate isn’t going far enough. It goes until the child is born, and actually there is a bigger story: What happens to these children, our children?”

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For Theresa Gregg and Modesta, the Holyhead works, for now.

Sometimes Gregg gets together with the other single moms living in the building to have a cup of tea and yap, or she will go out if the kids are with their father.

Being alone, she said, gives her too much time to think.

She doesn’t like living at Holyhead, she said while watching her daughter Millie share pieces of a chocolate Easter egg with Modesta’s son as they laugh and play on the blue-carpeted stairs.

“It’s not okay,” she said.

But she has no other choice.

Photo by Liz Meuser