Sanity and single motherhood

Martha Roberts, award-winning mental health journalist writes about making it work as a single mother, when struggling with mental health issues.


Sanity and single motherhood

The other day my eight-year-old son caught me dancing in the bathroom. 'Not that you’d ever want to, but if you did that in a nightclub, you’d probably catch a man.' Hilarity filled the house, as it so often does. His daily pint-sized views on life generally guarantee that.

I’m pondering on our relationship and I reckon it’s pretty close. We’re bound by a mutual love of ‘Miranda‘, ‘Friends‘, ‘Impractical Jokers and absurd gags, all of which guarantee fun times aplenty (he recently divulged that his book of choice on ‘Desert Island Discs‘ would be a joke book – that’s my boy).

We are, of course, glued together by blood and the searing love that springs from it; and, for better or worse, we live this out against a backdrop of being a single-parent family. In this ‘buddy-free’ system, teamwork reigns supreme. As a result, we have what I’d say is a pretty tight mother-and-son unit.

But like many parents, these times are frequently punctuated by self-doubt as to whether I’m doing it right. ‘He hasn’t lost as many teeth as his friends: am I feeding him enough to ensure he’s growing properly?’ or ‘Is he happy at school or could he be happier if he went somewhere else?’.

Of course my other friends worry too, but for me the usual parenting angst is compounded by the fact that as well as being a single mum, I have bipolar too (mixed affective state, or ‘agitated depression’).

There are times when parenting is hard for everybody, even when you’re hunting in pairs. I get that. But parenting alone can be even harder. I’ve done both and I think the single variety is infinitely more arduous than the coupled version.

Of course, single-parenting comes in many ‘flavours’ and some people are single parents and love it (and would say they’re psychologically healthier as a result of being uncoupled). And not every single parent suffers psychologically as a result of rearing their children on their own.

But when you’re not always feeling 100 per cent, mental health-wise, it can be hard to feel that single parenting is working on any level.

When I’m having a ‘wobble’ – a zinging and terrifying mix of depression and agitation – every mundane task seems gargantuan and every decision I have to make on my own seems petrifying (I rang the milkman in a panic to cancel my milk during my last episode in case it built up on my doorstep and overran my house, such was my anxiety). I start drowning in a sea of excess responsibility and lone decision-making and wonder if this’ll be the last time I come up for air.

Last year, Harry Potter author JK Rowling talked about how, when she was a single mother, she was so depressed that she considered suicide, but was saved by thoughts of her daughter. When I’m not well, I understand where she’s coming from. Although he doesn’t know it, my son locks me into life.

But perhaps the thing I miss the most is the support that would be there for my son when I’m ill. I wish someone else who cares for him as much as I do was there to scoop him up and say, ‘Come on, shall we go to the park?’ so that I can fight tears and demons for a while without feeling there’s the possibility of handing him a sad memory to look back on in the future.

As it goes, he is amazingly compassionate, especially when I’m not well. Despite me insisting that I’m not his responsibility, that I can look after myself and that this ill phase will pass, he tells me it’s OK, that he wants to be there for me (‘because I love you’) and that there’s nothing that his solution of a hug, a box of tissues and a glass of milk poured out into a Lego tumbler can’t solve.

But of course, I still worry about him. I worry about the fine line between his compassion and adaptive behaviour – having to learn how to be that way because, let’s face it, he has no choice.

Statistically, it’s been shown that there’s a strong association between single parenting and poor mental health:

Single parenting is associated with poor mental health

Before you even take into account any pre-existing mental health issues, single parenting is associated with poor mental health. A 2007 study by Crozier, Butterworth and Rogers found that single mums like me are significantly more likely to have a moderate to severe mental disability, like me.

In fact, the study shows that prevalence of mental health issues in single mums is almost 30 per cent (i.e. one-third of us) compared to partnered mothers (around 15 per cent).

The study cites the main reasons for single mums having an increased risk of poor mental health as decreased household income, increased financial hardship and a perceived lack of social support.

Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Woking, says, 'I’m struck by what a lonely place single parenting can be, and relentlessly hard work. I had a single mum tell me very recently, "I’m tired of being strong… I just want someone to look after me".'

Poor mental health is associated with an increased likelihood of divorce

Not only that, but if you have a mental health condition, you are far more likely to divorce than if you don’t. A multi-national meta-study of mental disorders, marriage and divorce, published in 2011, looked at 18 mental disorders and found an increased likelihood of divorce, ranging from a 20 per cent increase to a staggering 80 per cent increase in the divorce rate.

Major depression and addictions were the highest factors, while post-traumatic stress disorder was also significant.

Single-parenting can increase rates of child mental health issues

It seems we all worry about our children’s mental health – research carried out by Action for Children in 2015 found that UK parents are more likely to worry about their children’s mental health than any other health issue – some 40 per cent said their children’s emotional wellbeing was a primary concern (47 per cent for mothers). But single mums like me may have more reason to be concerned than others.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have found that children from single-parent families are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as those living with married parents – and it is boys whose parents had split up that had the highest rate of childhood mental illness.

The figures showed that one-fifth of those living with a divorced, separated or widowed parent suffered from at least one mental disorder compared to just eight per cent of boys living with married parents.

I also worry about bipolar in relation to my son – on my bad days I focus on his one in 10 chance of developing it, on my better days I figure he’s 90 per cent likely to be OK.

Catch 22

So it seems like it’s a case of catch 22. I had depression, which I know contributed to my divorce, and, now I’m a single mum, the risk of me becoming mentally unwell has risen. I’m not surprised – raising my son pretty much single-handedly, certainly making around 95 per cent of the decisions about his life on my own, hoping he’s OK whilst wondering how I’m going to be financially OK, does little to garner positive mental health.

It is utterly emotionally and physically exhausting, especially when I’m unwell (I’m just recovering from a two-week episode). Some people may find it a breeze, but for me, being a single mum can at times feel like swimming in my pyjamas with rocks in the pockets, drowning not waving and with no-one around to fish me out.

There isn’t enough help out there for single parents

The fact is, I don’t feel there’s enough help out there for single parents, and especially not single parents who have mental health issues.

Even though estimates suggest that around 50 per cent of parents with a severe and enduring mental illness live with one or more children under 18 (around 17,000 UK children and young people), the support for single parents like me just isn’t around. My local mental health trust doesn’t have anything. When I asked if there was a parenting group, all my psychiatrist could offer me was a gardening course.

Even mental health charities don’t seem to have anything I can tap into. I very much rely on other single-mum friends, who don’t have mental health problems, but understand the pressures of raising a child alone – that goes some way to helping. I’ve been trying to put feelers out in a bid to start my own group locally (with some help for those times when I’m sinking), but I’ve not got very far.

Gingerbread recently launched its Single Parents Decide campaign to shine a light on the issues that matter most to single parents as the May general election comes closer. And these include making childcare affordable and helping single parents take home a decent income.

I think there also ought to be a political commitment to help single parents with mental illness, whether it’s depression, OCD, eating disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia or anything else that makes single parenting even more arduous than it already is. I can’t help feeling that we are a whole subclass whose status of single-parenting whilst battling chronic ill health is like a societal powder keg waiting to explode.

The trouble is, I don’t think many politicians want to touch the topic of single-parenting, at least not in a positive way. For the most part, we aren’t economically powerful (and many think we are even an economic drain – a survey by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research once found that one-third of ex-wives end up in poverty after divorce. We are a group that often needs help).

So why bother trying to court our votes? Add mental health into the mix and we are, arguably, so niche as to be arcane. Mental health is, for politicians, marginally more fashionable than it used to be, single-parenting most definitely isn’t.

But the consequences of leaving single parents with mental health issues unsupported may be catastrophic, both for parents and children alike. As we approach May 7, I’ll be interested to see how mental health issues feature in the manifestos of the main political parties.

In the meantime – like many single parents with mental illness – I live in the hope that I’m doing it right, that my son will be fortified rather than felled by living with me and that, sooner or later, we’ll get the extra support that, as a family unit, we really need.

Twitter: @martharoberts01

For more inspiration:

Photograph: iStock