Mums and sons
Society is quick to judge sole parents, especially women raising boys. But what do boys themselves say.
If you read enough research and listen to enough social commentators, then you’ll probably believe children who do not live with both parents are bound for trouble. So, judging by the figures, it seems many Australian children face a bleak future.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that’s how many children aged under 15 live in households where mum plays the role of both mother and father.
In a two-year-old Swedish study researchers found children growing up in single-parent households were twice as likely to suffer from mental illness, commit suicide or fall victim to alcohol-related disease as children who lived with both parents.
Boys are especially vulnerable. According to the research, boys from a single-parent background were four times more likely to abuse drugs than boys who had two parents at home.
The study was published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, and picked up by many media outlets all hungry for a story. And conservative politicians and columnists concurred: boys needed men.
Who else will play footy or cricket with them? Who else will show them how to react to confrontation? Who else will make them strong? And who else can they share their ‘manly’ emotions with?
Interestingly, mums and boys cop the most flak. Boys are constantly under the spotlight about how to behave, react and cope in different situations. If they cry, they’re too weak. If they don’t, they’re too tough. Schools, other parents and extended family members are never short of a judgment.
Our society wants answers, explanations – and someone to blame. If the child is indeed deemed too weak, it’s probably because they don’t have a male influence. And if they are too tough, perhaps they are emotionally crippled by the fact they are raised by mum alone.
And what about poor old mum? She can’t possibly know what a boy needs. Many mums don’t play footy or get grubby outdoors, so how can they teach a boy how to be a boy? They’re probably so depressed all the time because they don’t have a man in their life; they can’t possibly be supportive on an emotional level, can they?
Author and Deakin University lecturer Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli has long been fascinated by the gap between what society dictates is acceptable and what is real, even before she began researching either of her books about boys and growing up – Boys’ Stuff and So What’s a Boy?
Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli prefers to go straight to the source for answers. In Boys Stuff, the young boys she interviewed spoke candidly about growing up in households where their fathers had left home.
‘A lot of the boys said very positive things, like their mother was much calmer, it was a caring environment and mum was very relaxed when their father was out of the picture, especially for those boys whose fathers had been violent,’ Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli says. What was worse was an environment where mum and dad were together but fought constantly.
Other benefits of having a single mother meant they learnt to care for themselves and were allowed to be more nurturing. They believe that they are more aware of women’s issues and a lot of the young ones say it makes them better boyfriends!
Many reported strong relationships with their mothers as they grew up. And most were aware of the sacrifices their mothers made. But it was the perception of people outside of the relationship they didn’t like.
‘They hated when they would read things about what they were supposed to be like,’ Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli says. ‘They are often dismissed as supposed to be more effeminate because the portrayal in the media of single parents.’
Just as Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli suspected, societal influences often placed more pressure on the boys than the situations they were in. ‘The other interesting thing I found was through comments boys made … that society and school made it seem bad or wrong (to have a single mother).
And our explanation-driven society often overlooks the real issues, instead taking the simplistic approach. ‘If boys were seen to struggle at school, then it was put down to a lack of support at home, a lack of community support networks'.
'A few boys said that if they were in trouble at school or something happened, then it was reflected back to their mothers. If they played up it was because their mums were single parents. Often this made things worse; the boys would become angry and their rebellion would escalate.’
The boys interviewed by Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli did not wholly support the idea that boys need dads. Most said it depended on what kind of dad and that a comforting environment was more important to them.
Speaking with Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli and listening to her talk about her young research subjects, one could draw the conclusion that single mums were the ideal.
Not necessarily so, she says. Single mums have their own struggles, can become isolated and carry much of the load themselves. Marriage breakdowns and stresses from not enough money and no partner for support aren’t ideal.
But the alternative isn’t always better because a mother plus a father doesn’t necessarily equal happiness, let alone perfection.
Simply, how mums (and indeed their sons) choose to cope with their situation plays a bigger role in the outcome than the situation itself. What society needs to do is to realise that one size does not fit all and that problems and breakdowns occur for all sorts of reasons.
And the source of the problem is almost always more complex than the type of family make-up they come from.
When Kerri Bartels’ marriage broke up four years ago, the thought of raising her two young children alone was the least of her worries. She left that for everyone else to stress about while she just got on with it.
“I get told all the time ‘oh you poor thing’ and ‘the poor kids’,’ Kerri says. It’s almost like people are watching, waiting for her to fail. That’s okay most of the time, she says, because she is happy, her children are thriving and life really has never been better.
Just recently, Kerri moved into a brand new home with her children, Kate, 10, and Dan, 8. In an era where high property prices make it difficult for any single person – let alone single parent – to enter the mortgage market, she saved the money to build their home.
Kerri is a determined woman but she admits lone parenting is not easy, and there are times when it feels like it’s getting on top of her. But most of the time, the pressure comes from outside influences. Kerri is especially vulnerable to media reports speculating on the damage to boys who grow up in single parent homes.
‘I latch on to everything in the paper. There is all sorts of stuff lately about kids and single mothers and working mothers,’ she says. Funny though, she thinks, how you can be doing the right thing by the children yet the opinions of others can still affect you – even if they are speculating on her circumstances without knowing her.
And the doubts do creep in. Kerri admits she worries a little more about Dan than Kate. With a woman as his main caregiver, does Dan get all he needs?
Kerri’s ex-husband still plays a pivotal role in their children’s’ lives; the kids spend every other weekend with him, some time during school holidays and see him at least one evening during the week.
And about 12 months ago another male entered the picture when Kerri started a long-term relationship. But she still worries it’s not the same as having a dad living with them. Kerri is wise enough to realise if she had stayed in her unhappy marriage, her children would have been raised in a less than ideal situation – and that’s with two parents.
She pauses for a moment when asked what the ideal family is. ‘The perfect family has nothing to do with mum, dad and the kids. It’s about the right balance with quality time together and meeting your commitments.’
by Rebecca Tucker
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2005.