Demographic changes and resistance to being constructed as Other
Over the last two decades there has been a marked increase in the percentage of all households with dependent children that consist of children with a lone mother (from 7 per cent in 1971 to 18 per cent in 1991, with lone fathers remaining at 1 per cent; Burghes 1993). This means that the appeal to ‘commonplaces’ was always likely to misfire. At any one time more than a million women are lone mothers, and since it is not a static state, even more women will have been or know that they are likely to become lone mothers. Many women thus pass through lone motherhood. Numerous other people know women they are related to or friendly with who are lone mothers, while many men are the fathers of the children being reared by lone mothers.
Since it is unlikely that anyone appreciates being blamed for the ills of society or being constructed as Other, the demographic shift in lone motherhood is likely to have diminished the constituency of those who support the government’s ‘family agenda’. In addition, such shifts are likely to reflect social changes in ideology, away from those espoused in Conservative family policies as well as changes in social practices. Those in the sub-category who are most often constructed as concrete examples of the evils of lone motherhood— teenage, never-married women (the ultimate lone mothers)—also do not consider themselves to be problematic.
When asked, 21 months after giving birth, how they thought they were coping as mothers, nearly two-thirds of the women in a London – based study of 16- 19-year-old first-time mothers (reported in Phoenix 1991) said that they felt they were coping ‘quite well’ with their children, and just under a third said that they were coping ‘very well’. More than four-fifths considered themselves to be coping as well as they wanted to with motherhood. This did not mean that they gave only glowing accounts of how they were coping. Willard Williams (1990) found that women in her US sample of black mothers under 20 were generally realistic about the demands of child care. This was also a finding in the London study of 16-19 year-old first-time mothers.
This did not mean that they rejected constructions of ‘young mothers’ as problematic. They did not, however, include themselves (or the people they knew and liked) in the deviant category. So, for example, mothers under 20 sometimes described other mothers in the same situation as themselves as problematic in a number of ways while, by contrast, they constructed themselves as deserving and honourable. This was sometimes a racialized construction. For example, although some council housing departments have been found to be racially discriminatory against black people (Commission for Racial Equality 1984), some white respondents said that black people were treated unfairly well when it came to getting council housing. Long waits for council housing increased some women’s feelings of competitiveness with other council tenants. Similarly, women in straitened financial circumstances (many of whom lived in council housing) sometimes resented other welfare claimants.
The statements that some women made about other welfare claimants directly fitted into discourses that stigmatize ‘teenage mothers’ and ‘lone mothers’ even as they distanced themselves from the associated stigma. Thus some of the women interviewed readily reproduced existing stereotypes of lone mothers (but not themselves) becoming pregnant for instrumental reasons. In doing so, they drew on contradictory notions: that ‘young mothers’ are feckless, but that some young women, particularly themselves, make good, deserving mothers. This indicates that old ideologies do not necessarily disappear when people’s own circumstances or experiences appear to contradict them. Instead, they sediment into common sense, making contrary themes available in everyday talk (Billig 1991). The availability of contrary themes about lone mothers, and hence their differentiation, was partially responsible for the failure of the discourse of ‘lone motherhood as major social problem’ to achieve the consensus expected by the Conservative government.
In any case, although over 80 per cent of women who give birth in their teenage years are single when they do so; they constitute only about 4 per cent of all lone mothers (43,500 in 1991, Babb 1993). Thus, focusing on them as the ‘ultimate Others’ (Brah 1993) is not likely to produce consensus that lone motherhood is generally problematic.
It is not only people constructed as deviant who exempt themselves from pathological categories while not dispensing with notions that people with similar characteristics to themselves are deviant. When Virginia Bottomley, then Secretary of State for Health, was revealed to have been a lone mother when aged 19 and a university student, the Conservative government joined ranks to refute allegations that she could be compared with irresponsible lone mothers. Timothy Yeo, then a Conservative minister, was revealed to have fathered a child outside his marriage at a time when the Conservative ‘back to basics’ campaign was making sexual and family values part of a moral crusade. Yeo argued that he would be contributing to his child’s upbringing and hence was not an errant father (although he had helped to create a lone-mother household). Similar arguments were put forward by Cecil Parkinson when, as a minister in the Thatcher government, he was also revealed to have fathered a child by a woman other than his wife. However, both Yeo and Parkinson eventually had to resign their government positions, partly because of media outcry against the hypocrisy they demonstrated. It is perhaps not surprising that (white) middle-class fathers who are unused to being constructed as problematic are resistant to being constructed as Other by being ‘pursued’ by the Child Support Agency. This is particularly the case since being constructed as refusing to pay is rather less morally justifiable than being unable to pay.
Various Conservative Members of Parliament have blamed a range of constituencies for the increase in lone motherhood, including the church, ‘politically correct’ ideas and a feminist movement that ‘has given encouragement to the concept that it is all right to have a child and bring the child up on your own’ (Tom Sackville, Health Minister, Guardian, 6 July 1993). By doing so they have ostracized a range of people, some of whom might otherwise have been supportive of the ‘family values’ agenda.