Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

PARENTING HONESTLY

The reality of being a young, single mum

When Emily Morris was 22 she faced an unplanned pregnancy and so she had to negotiate pregnancy forums, antenatal classes and, of course, parenthood alone

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By Emily Morris on

I signed up to the parenting forum before I even knew I was sticking with the pregnancy. If the counsellors, Samaritans and the doctor couldn’t give me the answer, maybe some strangers on the internet could. (Among the scant replies I received, I’ll never forget an amazing, reassuring and knowledgeable email from a woman in New Zealand who’d found herself in the same position, had the baby and turned out happy.)

Once I got into the swing of being pregnant, or at least tried to, I decided to log in again. The forums were arranged by the month babies were due, so that women at the same stages of pregnancy could talk to each other about all the weird stuff that was happening to their bodies. I signed up to “Due in March” and quickly realised that most of the threads were indecipherable. On them, it turned out, people spoke in a strange code, whereby abbreviating every other word for the sake of a few letters was preferable to just writing it. I knew that mothers were busy people, but it was ridiculous. PG was not the rating of a film that might have the odd rude word, but the abbreviation for “pregnant”. After my first visit to the board, I found it necessary to consult the glossary, which left me a little wiser but no less irritated. When reading the posts about morning sickness and which maternity jeans to buy, my internal voice spoke the acronyms and never the full-blown words. It was like virtually conversing with robots. DS was not the name of a popular handheld games console, but the shortened version of that well-known, often spoken phrase “darling son”. Similarly, DD was not a bra cup size, but stood for “darling daughter”. Things got really confusing when people had multiple numbers of offspring, which is when numbers came into play and people started going on about DS2, DD25 etc. What was wrong with just writing “daughter” or “son” was beyond me.

“I am PG with DD2. DS1 and DD1 are going to MIL when I go to hospital.”

Oh yeah, “MIL” stood for “mother-in-law” and was too close for comfort to “MILF”, if you asked me.

Most irritating of all the jargon, though, probably because of the lone boat I was in, were the abbreviations for the men of the pregnant women. A “DP” was a “darling partner”, a “DH” a “darling husband” and “OH” (OH!) translated as “other half”.

The worst thing about that for me was the general air of hysterical excitability. Every page was peppered with far too many smiley faces and exclamation marks, and many members had set it so that a gaudy, glittering, animated countdown to their due date sparkled beneath everything they wrote. People posted weekly “bump photos” of their burgeoning bellies, often taken in the mirror, with wedding photos mounted above luxuriously furnished beds or smart mantelpieces just visible in the background. All of it felt totally foreign, not just because I wasn’t married and I lived in a mouldy shared house, but because I was not as excited as they were and I felt guilty and envious about that. I had established that I loved my baby and that my instinct was to look after it, but I was still reeling from the shock of its existence and petrified about the future. I began to resent the other mothers.

One of the many things the forums taught me was that some women love nothing more than to complain about how utterly useless their ‘darling partners’ are

Still, it had its uses, so I stuck around, rarely writing posts myself, gleaning information where I could. I regularly skipped my “own” forum and trawled the one for the current month, checking on how things were for those who’d actually had their babies. Graphic “birth stories” terrified me, yet I kept reading until I got to the endings, which invariably involved reports of ecstasy and it all being worth the pain. I carefully studied images of wrinkled, waxy newborns, sure that they all looked the same. I marvelled at photos of radiant-looking new mothers who didn’t look like they’d just nearly died.

It was both friend and enemy to me; a useful tool for communicating with others, and a hotbed of dangerous self-comparison. Just like Facebook that came after it, most members were only willing to project a perfect version of themselves. In the world of baby-making, that means being slim, wholesome, wealthy and romantically happy, none of which applied to me.

One of the many things the forums taught me was that some women love nothing more than to complain about how utterly useless their “darling partners” are. Did you know that when going to B&Q to select the paint for the nursery, ahead of spending all weekend decorating it, some men buy the wrong shade? Did you also know that some men fail to bring chocolate home from the shops when they have been ordered to do so? Or that they snore?

 

***

 

While the other online mothers were throwing themselves into an exciting new world of techniques, terminology and equipment, I was avoiding the book on pregnancy and birth my mother had given me because I was terrified of what lay inside. A quick flick-through had revealed a lot of DPs with side partings and polo shirts, rubbing beautiful, not-really-pregnant women’s backs. Rather than getting myself into a panic by intensely revising and reading up, I was hoping I could turn up on the first day of motherhood and work out what to do.

Of course, my midwife disagreed with that approach, as did my mum. They both thought I should be making friends with other mothers-to-be and comparing notes on stretchmarks and breathing exercises. They kept trying to convince me to go to aquanatal classes, but there was no way I was getting in a swimming costume in my condition.

“You won’t be the only one,” Mum kept saying. “There are loads of single parents these days.”

“I don’t think the pregnant ones are single yet,” I said.

In the end, I agreed to go to a class at the hospital that promised to tell me what was going to happen to my body in pregnancy and childbirth – something I really didn’t want to find out about, but knew I probably should.

Two women were standing at the front of the dingy room. On a table in front of them, a doll lay next to a plastic pelvis. I slipped into the back row and chose the most isolated seat I could find, tuning in and out of conversations about numbers of weeks and maternity dresses and weight gain.

Turns out when people refer to their husbands in real life, they don’t say DH, or “darling husband”, but “hubby”, which is at least 60 times more annoying. And I know that makes me sound bitter, but I hereby declare that in the highly unlikely event I ever marry, I will never, ever use the word “hubby”. Those who weren’t married talked about “partners”, which sounded like it should be prefixed by “howdy”.

If you are the only parent, you get double helpings of the guilt – lucky you. In my case, I was guilty about the fact my child did not have a father

The midwives introduced themselves as Jackie and Rita.

They spoke of pelvic floors and incontinence and perineums and olive oil.

“Just get your hubby to give you a nice massage down there and it could reduce your risk of tearing,” said Jackie.

“Extra virgin works best,” said Rita. “Only joking, ladies!”

“Now, you all know you shouldn’t be fetching and carrying in your pregnancy, don’t you? That’s really important. So, make sure your partner does any heavy lifting for you. And that goes for after the birth – there’s nothing worse than seeing a woman who’s just birthed carrying her baby in a heavy car seat. You’ll need to ask your partner to help you get your baby in and out of the car, especially for the first few days.”

I looked around the room, my eyes darting from woman to woman, desperately trying to find my kindred spirit, the one woman who was also here under duress and going it alone, the one who didn’t have a partner or a car, but all of them were nodding.

"Now, birthing balls!"

Jackie produced a silver gym ball and sat astride it, her legs wide open.

"Birthing balls are brilliant for an active labour, which can really help to speed baby along, because we can’t wait to meet our babies, right?”

More nods, accompanied by murmurs of excitement.

This was not exciting; it was horrible. Why couldn’t any of these women see how terrible the whole thing was?

“I’ve got my birthing ball already,” said a voice from a couple of rows in front.

“Brilliant! ​That's what we like to hear!”

“I was bouncing on it in front of the telly the other night and my hubby came home and laughed at me. I said, 'I'd like to see you on one of these, you cheeky bugger!’”

“Ooh, I’d have given him a slap!”

Suddenly, everyone was guffawing and comparing the uselessness of their hubbies. And I was tearing off my name sticker and walking out into the rain.

 

***

 

The guilt begins in the delivery room, or the operating theatre (or the car park or the bathroom or wherever the baby is born). It racks you from the very start. The doctors ask if you'd like your baby to have a vitamin K injection, which helps prevent spontaneous bleeding in the first few weeks of its life. Of course you want it to have that injection (or I did, anyway). So, within minutes of arriving into the world and wondering what the bright lights and sounds and space were all about, my baby, Tom, was stabbed in his tiny heel with a needle. I couldn't explain this to him or comfort him; all I could do was listen as his already bewildered cry grew several octaves higher.

If you are the only parent, you get double helpings of the guilt – lucky you. In my case, I was guilty about the fact my child did not have a father, and that the hope I realised I’d been clinging to for eight months that he might magically materialise when Tom was born had not come into fruition. I also felt guilty because I couldn’t feed my baby, that even the natural mechanics of it wouldn’t work. It’s not just single mothers or those who can’t master breastfeeding who are affected by the guilt; from talking to other parents, I know that the guilt gets to most of them. They feel guilty that their baby seems to suffer from perpetual insomnia, guilty that they were unable to deliver it the natural way, guilty for the very fact it exists in this world. I want to say that the guilt dissipates, or at least eases off a bit as babies get older, but it doesn’t. With walking and talking come inevitable questions about the world, the answers to which are often bleak – with nursery and school, the realisation that not everybody you encounter smiles at you and adores you; and if you work, there will always be the constant battle between your job and your child, which will manifest itself in dilemmas like being unable to attend the school play. And, for single parents, the guilt is galvanised by the lack of any kind of understudy to join the audience in your place.

 

***

 

Being a single mum is difficult. You have to cope with loneliness, poverty, feelings of inadequacy and isolation, but one of the most difficult things is judgement. “Single mum” is heavy with negative preconceptions. Most single mums are the ones left behind, in difficult circumstances, just doing their best. Headlines vilify single mums and the tired old stereotype of us all being benefits scroungers with criminal kids gets rolled out time and time again. If someone had told me when I was 21 that I only had a year of the life I knew and loved left, that I'd have to swap lectures and nights out and my plans to travel out for nappies and baby groups and children's TV, I'd have been devastated. I made it work though, somehow. It wasn't easy, but it was a true adventure. My son starts secondary school next month and he constantly makes me proud. My twenties might not have turned out the way I had planned, but I'm really glad they didn't.

This is an edited extract from My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris, published by Salt Publishing

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PARENTING HONESTLY
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