If you’re raising a child by yourself, the whole world seems to have a view. And, says Libby Liburd, it’s a view that’s likely to be very wrong.
My name is Libby Liburd. I’m an actor, a writer and a mother. More specifically, a single mother.
The official definition of a single mother is an ‘uncoupled individual who shoulders most or all of the day-to-day responsibilities for raising a child or children’. But, with the title ‘single mother’ comes a host of other connotations.
I know this because I used to be married. When I was married, I didn’t get any additional adjectives in front of my title. I was a mother, and that was that. When my marriage broke down, I became a single mother. So now my official title was not only about me as a parent, but also about my relationship status. And suddenly how I was viewed as a parent changed.
So, what do you get when you are awarded the auspicious title ‘Single Mother’? Erm…
Here’s a direct quote from a Well-Known-National-Newspaper-That-I-Shall-Not-Name’s article to give you a rough idea: “Children who grow up without fathers suffer throughout their lives. They face a higher chance of death as babies and in adulthood they are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, or imprisoned.
“Such children are also more at risk of poverty, poor health, unhappiness and poor performance at school, sexual or physical abuse, running away from home, heavy drinking and smoking, drug-taking, falling into crime, early sex, sexually transmitted infections and teenage parenthood.”
O… K… so basically ‘Single Mother’ seems to be synonymous for ‘Bad Mother’. Now, we could just dismiss this as Well-Known-National-Newspaper-That-I-Shall-Not-Name’s reporting – they hate everyone right? But I think it goes deeper than that.
“The implication is that a ‘good family’ is a couple parent family, that’s the right kind of family. Look at the words used to describe single parent families: broken families, broken home. And what is broken needs fixing, right?”
When you become a single mother, suddenly, on every official form you fill in, you have to declare it. You tell people you have a child you’re raising alone and they want to know what happened to his dad, as if it’s their right to know. You overhear things that suddenly sting… I once overheard someone talking about another child, saying, “He’s from a good family; both his parents are together.”
Recently a single mother inquiring about a family ticket was told, “You’re not a family, you’re just an adult with children.” A ‘family ticket’ for the cinema or any kind of half term activity is two adults plus children. A ‘family’ holiday is based on two adults plus children.
The implication is that a ‘good family’ is a couple parent family, that’s the right kind of family. I mean, look at the words used to describe single parent families: broken families, broken home. And, of course, what is broken needs fixing, right?
Those in power seem to dislike us just single mums just as much. Maggie Thatcher once said the children of lone parents were better off in the hands of “a very good religious organisation”. David Cameron pretty much entirely blamed the 2011 riots on those with “no fathers at home”. Owen Lovell, the town mayor of Lyme Regis, had to apologise after stating that “morally behaved” people should be placed ahead of single mothers on housing lists.
The actual facts are stark: The average age of a single parent is 38; just 2 per cent of single parents are teenagers; most single parents are in work. Yet, if you’re in a single parent family, you’re twice as likely to be in poverty as those in a couple parent family. And, make no mistake, this is an issue that falls squarely on the shoulders of women: around 91 per cent of single parents are mothers.
Trying to raise a child is always gonna be a challenging experience, but doing it alone is insane. I didn’t choose to be a single mum, I wanted to be in a couple parent family but it didn’t work out that way and I refuse to accept that means game over for me and my son.
As an actor, being a single parent feels like an even more impossible task – juggling auditions and day jobs and learning lines, with school runs and parenting duties. There are so many jobs I can’t do. I can’t tour or be away from home for long because there’s no one else to look after my child. There’s no one else in my household earning an additional income and my own income varies wildly. Most actors seem to drop out of the business when they have children because it is so hard, even if you are in a couple, and personally, I know only two other single parent actors.
“It’s like flipping Animal Farm out here: ‘All families are equal, but some families are more equal than others.'”
Theatre and TV hours do not fit within traditional childcare hours and you’re often expected to do long hours on set with early call times. There’s no safety net of another parent to call on to do the school pick-up if a shoot or rehearsal gets delayed.
The industry operates on a very ‘last-minute’ basis; when my son was younger I remember sobbing because I had been confirmed for a job, but they didn’t know shoot dates or times in advance and I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to find childcare. In those years when he was younger I felt like I just muddled through by the skin of my teeth, in a state of constant anxiety.
I’ve lost jobs due to discrimination against me as a single parent – at one audition I was actually told to my face that I wasn’t suitable due to my “commitments”.
But I’ve had loads of lovely experiences too, with companies allowing me to have my son with me during jobs, so it’s not all bad. He has gained a wealth of knowledge about the industry in all its glory, and he’s seen the inside of most rehearsal spaces in London (I’m still trying to this day to sell that one to him as positive…).
My son is 15 now, so I have a bit more freedom to create my own work and I don’t have to run the daily childcare gauntlet anymore. But everything is still on my shoulders. I have to make enough money, single-handedly, to pay my rent every month, cover all the bills, and feed a 6ft tall eating machine.
His feet are a size 10 now and he grows every 10 seconds so clothing him costs a small fortune. I also have to – alone – make sure everything happens at the right time; every bill is paid, every deadline is met, every bit of homework completed, that the house is relatively habitable, that he and I have clean clothes to wear and there’s a bit more food in the fridge than an out-of-date cucumber and some shrivelled grapes.
“I never saw my experiences authentically represented in theatre, and my son never saw an authentic representation of his family on stage or TV either.”
I do all that with military precision and a hot pink book filled with To Do and Already Done lists. People tell me I’m the most organised person they know. I’m usually earlier than everyone else to get somewhere. I’ve been late for a show call time once in my 16 years as an actor. As my director recently said, “You just get shit done.”
But doing all that is still not enough. The media continually tells me our family is not the right kind of family. It’s like flipping Animal Farm out here: “All families are equal, but some families are more equal than others.”
I’ve just glanced online and seen a little article about a single mother and here are some delightful quotes taken directly from the comments: “She should’ve been spayed… it works for cats and dogs”; “You waste of space excuse for a woman. You’re a scrounger, nothing more. Hope you never meet a nice man”; “She is rather common”; “Should buy some soap”; “Scuzz-tastic!”; “You can tell she’s a scrounger just by looking at her”; “Leaving us mugs to pay for her inability to swallow a pill”; “The only job she’s done is a blow.”
So, me being the person that ‘gets shit done’, I decided to write a show about being a single mother. I never saw my experiences authentically represented in theatre, and my son never saw an authentic representation of his family on stage or TV either.
I put together this teeny tiny idea for a little one-woman show. I spoke to other single mums; I researched government policies and interviewed everyone I could think of. In September last year, Camden People’s Theatre gave me a chance to try my idea as a 20-minute scratch performance. As soon as I did, I realised I was onto something.
Since then, it’s gone from strength to strength and now I have a full, hour-long one-woman show. It’s funny, it’s dynamic, it’s truthful, I poke fun at the stereotypes, I’ve got verbatim testimony in there, I even do maths onstage. Actual maths.
And it’s not just a show for single mothers, it’s for anyone that ever felt like the underdog, anyone that ever felt that they were up against it, and still kept smiling and getting shit done. You should come and see it.
See Muvvahood at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, 27-29 October, 7.45pm plus 1.30pm relaxed matinee with creche available on 28 October, and at Camden People’s Theatre, 3-5 November 7.15pm.
Muvvahood is written and performed by Libby Liburd. Directed by Julie Addy. Produced with support from Stratford Circus Arts Centre. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England.