Recently ‘Harper Valley PTA’ by Jeannie C. Riley was played on the radio and I hadn’t heard it for years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08QH3rVqokw
It’s a song about the negative small town attitudes which a single widowed mother, Mrs Johnson, attracts as she raises her daughter, and it reminded me that it was a bit of an anthem for me when my own kids were little.
Having been left alone to raise three children, aged 7, 5 and 1, I was prepared for many of the challenges that would bring. What I was wholly unprepared for was the switch that was instantly thrown regarding my change of status from ‘wife’ to ‘single mother’; gossip, alienation and judgmentalism of my life, appearance, value systems and even my faith, followed. And this song encapsulated something of that experience for me.
We were one of a few churchgoing families and, on picking my kids up from school one day wearing black leather stiletto boots, a dad from a ‘nice’ (and non-churchgoing) family came up to me and asked how I had the gall to be seen in church when I wore boots like that. I said I felt faith had far more to do with what God places on our hearts than what we choose to wear on our feet.
Over the years of their childhood, the children and I encountered a lot of good and kind people. But my family was also treated consistently poorly by many ‘nice’ families in the predominantly middle-class area where we lived. Not because mine weren’t on the whole good and kind kids, quite the opposite; they were the ones who usually came alongside the traveller families and the children no-one else played with. But the fact we sided with others who were marginalised made us all even greater targets. Over the years, I was spat at, threatened and once even had a car driven at me. All by men, all from ‘nice’ families and some in surprising positions of power.
And I’m far from being the only single mum whose family has experienced such treatment.
So when women say to me that they understand what it’s like to raise children alone because their husbands work away a lot, I have to say you probably don’t.
Single mothers are fulfilling a vital role in this country trying, with great courage, to raise their children to be decent, caring, contributing members of society and often in the most challenging of circumstances. We need to give them a break from the culture of negativity they so often attract. They deserve our support and respect, not our condemnation and alienation.
And we can each contribute positively to influencing a change in that culture. If you’re a ‘nice’ family, of faith or not, then make nice. Invite the single parented kids to the parties and send your children along, cheerfully and with a good heart, to theirs. Speak to the woman on her own at the school gates. Affirm her, affirm her children. Learn about lives that are different and be open to sharing about yours.
And to all those women living through some of this stuff now – keep going, always be proudly yourself and encourage your kids to the same. Aim high.
We need a new narrative of family life in Britain. I was in a Church school the other day which had a sheet of A3 paper stuck to the wall of the entrance hall. At the top it said ‘Family ️’ and then underneath, as each child joined the school and they were asked about their family, the school added in bright colours what their family looked like…so it had
Mum + Dad = Family
Mum + me = Family
Dad + me = Family
Mum + Mum = Family
Dad + Dad = Family
Mum + step-dad = Family
Dad + step-mum = Family
Nan + me = Family
Mum + Mum’s boyfriend = Family
…and so on. So many different and flourishing family shapes and sizes.
The United Nations General Assembly’s broad definition of family acknowledges that “various concepts of the family exist in different social, cultural, and political systems, but it is recognized that families are basic to the social structure and development of all societies”.
Families matter. Societal and cultural affirmation of family matters. Flourishing families across the social spectrum are the building blocks of a more equal, inclusive and tolerant future society. All families – of whatever shape, size or make-up – are of value and worthy of our respect, inclusion and support.
And our individual actions, the small things in affirming all of that day in/day out in our local networks and communities, matter.
A more equal and accepting society is good for every family, for everyone…together we can all sock it to the culture of the Harper Valley PTA.