The stigma of being a young solo mum: 'Don't judge me - talk to me'by Aaron Hendry
A young single mother talks about what it's like to be constantly judged by others, the difficulties of juggling work and childcare and why she thinks Jacinda Ardern is helping to normalise motherhood in the workplace.
I was appalled.
Holly is a young youth worker, manager and mother. I was sitting with her that morning, listening as she recounted to me this experience of attending a Christian mothers' group. I couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed and saddened. Christians are only human, I know that, but I still wish we did a better job of loving people than we often do.
As Holly continued her story, my sadness deepened. She told me how she had tried to keep down the anger that bubbled up inside her when she first heard those words come from the group leader’s mouth. As a young, single mother herself, surrounded by mothers who “had it all together”, she had felt the weight of their condemnation.
Holly had come to this group looking for support and connection with other mothers. Unfortunately, what she found was quite the opposite. Instead of acceptance and love, Holly felt rejection. As if because she wasn’t married, she was different, more broken, not fit to mix with the likes of “them".
She never went back. I couldn’t blame her.
The stigma of young motherhood
It was a long time before Holly set foot in a church again. As a young mother trying to find her place in this world, she was still looking for that connection.
“The hardest thing about being a young mother is the ongoing loneliness,” she told me between sips of her still steaming tea. “It’s a really lonely place, and no one gets you. There’s this stigma that young mums just aren’t capable.
“Then on top of that, there is this narrative within society that assumes that because I am young, I’m a bad mother. That because of my age, I’m going to have my baby taken away from me, or be on the benefit for the rest of my life.
“But, I know I’m a good mum,” she said with a half chuckle, “it doesn’t matter how old I am! In fact, it shouldn’t matter that I’m a mum at all. I wish society would treat young mothers like people. Instead of making all these assumptions about who they are, or what their situation is. Why don’t we just get to know them.”
It was a profound statement. As she spoke I couldn’t help but reflect on how easily we, as a society, box and label people. How we categorise them, without first even listening to their stories or acknowledging their humanity.
“I think there is a big problem with a lack of empathy in this country,” she continued, reflecting on what she had said. “We look at people and we judge them based on who we think they are. But every person is different, no one's story is the same.”
“Being a single mum can be hard. There is this stigma about being on the benefit, but then, on the other hand, our society hasn’t made it easy for mothers to pursue other options. With the cost of living so high, going to Uni is difficult. There’s little money, less support. If you work then you have little time for your child. Yet, on the other hand, if you take government assistance, you’re judged and looked down on.”
When Holly did go back to church, it was to a specific young mums' group in her community. She had been avoiding it for a while, but eventually, she decided to just give it a go.
This time her experience was different. Where, in the other community, she had felt judged and labelled. Here, she was made to feel at home.
“It became like a safety net of support for me, it was a place where I could be connected to other young mums, they didn’t expect me to believe in their religion in order to belong. They were just there for me, they walked alongside me. That’s what I needed.”
Holly believes there is a real need for communities to offer places of support and connection for young mums. “There is very little support out there for young mothers - unless you’re in a bad place of course. It’s like we wait until something goes wrong, and then we’re like, ‘Oh wait, we’ll help you!'
'Jacinda is normalising motherhood'
Holly believes that is why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is so important, she is normalising motherhood. “When I first found out she was pregnant, I thought it was so cool. She is such a good role model. It's so good for women to be able to see that they can do anything.”
The Prime Minister has said that she is privileged to be able to have the sort of job that allows her to have her baby with her at work. “But, being a mother, and being able to work shouldn’t be a privilege," says Holly. "More workplaces should be child-friendly. Being a single mother is hard. Most of the time you are forced to work long hours just to afford the childcare. It’s not a great quality of life.
“That’s why what Jacinda is doing is so powerful. There is so much pressure placed on mothers to get it right. Yet, Jacinda is reminding us that mums aren’t perfect. And that, in fact, they don’t have to be. But, when you have support, when whanau and community pull together, when we really take seriously the key role the village plays in raising the child, then this empowers us to be the best that we can be.
'Stop judging me'
“What young mothers need is for our communities to stop treating us like we’re different from everyone else.
“Instead of judging me when my child is screaming in the supermarket, have a conversation with me. Little encouragements like, ‘Oh my baby always has a tantrum in this aisle too,’ go a long way. Just little things like that make all the difference."
Holly is one of those people who is doing things well. Sitting there, listening to her story, all I could think of is how courageous and strong she is. I could hear her little boy laughing and playing in the other room with my family, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the absurdity of anyone judging her ability or skills as a mother.
In fact, rather than being a drain on society, Holly is an asset, in her work as a manager of a small team of youth workers, she focuses on empowering and encouraging other young women who are on a similar journey to her own.
At the end of our discussion, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of inspiration.
Here before me was a young woman who is living proof of the power of womanhood. She has faced the stigma, and discrimination that our society has put on her for being young, and being a mum. She has risen above societal expectation, shrugging off the boxes and the labels, and has created for herself a successful career.
Regardless of who you are, Holly's strength and courage is an example of the power of unconditional love. Perhaps if we focused on getting to know the Hollys of our communities, and stopped to listen to them, we would be able to learn the lessons they have to teach.
Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A theology graduate of Laidlaw College, he writes about the intersection of theology and social justice at whenlambsaresilent.wordpress.com / facebook.com/whenlambsaresilent
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