Single parenthood: Three families discuss the pressures - and pleasures - of their situation

Forget the clichés about slack dads and feckless mums – life as a single parent is tough, as Charlotte Philby discovers

Who do you like better: mum or dad? For children of separated parents – that is, 23 per cent of the population – it is a question that will have probably have raised its head at some point. Maybe unconsciously. Maybe privately and with a degree of guilt. Maybe – not least for the four-fifths of those who were 18 or under at the time of their parents' separation – it was skimmed over as part of a wider list of criteria when assessing who to live with, along with "who will give me more pocket money?" and "who is less likely to spot me creeping in two hours past curfew?"

The answers to that question and more have come under scrutiny in a new survey which throws light on the way we live and love in Britain today. Five thousand people across the England and Wales were interviewed for The Way We Are Now 2014, a state-of-the-nation report by the charity Relate, which asked – among a number of questions – the children (and adults) of separated couples to describe their ongoing relationships with their mothers and fathers.

Women fared better than men, with 71 per cent of those whose parents split up when they were under 18 reporting that they had a 'good or very good' relationship with their mother, while less than half could say the same of their father. Interestingly, the difference was less marked when the parents had separated when the child was over 18, with > more than 56 per cent claiming they had a good or very good relationship with dad and 70 per cent with mum.

These answers were bought into focus when measured against the responses of those whose parents were still together, with 77 per cent of offspring of united couples saying they had a good or very good relationship with their father, and 80 per cent with their mother.

For the majority of the nearly 2 million single parents across the UK, 90 per cent of whom are women, wondering which parent their kid likes best is probably not something they have much time to ponder. Despite decades of supposed social progress and single parenthood cutting across every social divide – with less than 2 per cent of single parents now being teenagers and the average being 38 years old – single- parent charity Gingerbread claims there has never been a harder time to raise a child alone.

"Single parents are twice as likely to live in poverty as children in 'coupled' families," says Faith Dawes, a spokesperson for Gingerbread. This is because of a series of changes to the tax and welfare systems: from cuts in tax credits, to the introduction of universal credit, the infrastructure that once served to protect vulnerable children and families is being whittled away.

Add to that, Dawes says, "a desperate shortfall" in affordable, quality childcare, cuts to maternity pay, along with SureStart being stripped back and the slashing of child benefit, and the fact that there are now 400 fewer children's centres than there were four years ago, and "things aren't easy".

The need to find work that can be balanced with raising a child means lone parents often end up in low-paid, low-skilled, part-time work. Add to that changes to the maintenance system: separated parents are now encouraged to make their own arrangements regarding child maintenance – with fees applied to the parent who has custody in circumstances where an agreement cannot be met. This, critics suggest, will merely serve to punish those who are already vulnerable.

For a number of single parents making it work day in, day out, is not just a matter of financial pressure or even the logistical challenges of raising a child. It is as much about the emotional pressures: setting parameters, being a good role model, having enough time to listen, offering advice, sex education. Being everything to everyone, all the time.

So what is it really like to be a single parent in Britain today?

Edwin Haig, 52, and Connor Haig, 14

"When my son was five months old his mum died of Sudden Adult Death syndrome. There was no warning; she literally just sat back and she was dead. She was 34 at the time. My initial response to be honest for about three months was that I was in another world. I was in shock, disbelief, grief. But luckily most of my attention went on Connor, who was just going on to solids at the time. He was the one thing that kept me going and probably still is.

I continued with postnatal classes when my wife died, and eventually Connor ended up going to private nursery for four years so I could keep my job.

There aren't many single dads around and in the early days there were two men and 30 women in a single parents' group I joined. Most of the women were sympathetic and forthcoming with tips and advice. There is a social side, but I always think when I'm in McDonald's or somewhere with Connor they assume you're the divorced dad taking him for the weekend, which used to bug me.

I also think men are cut more slack than women. When people talk about single mums there is often the assumption it is their own fault. Because [single dads] are rarer, people assume there must be special circumstances to put them in that position.

Being on my own is all I've known. It's not like Connor's mum died when he was 10. It's difficult when he achieves something, those times you wish his mum could have seen this. He has never had to use the word.

The bond between Connor and me is brill, we've always done stuff together and go away on weekends, boys' sort of stuff. Now he's older he wants to be with friends a bit more, but there are lots of good things. We celebrate fathers' and mothers' days – he says 'you are both'. He's a good boy; he gives me hardly any trouble. He's grown up quite well-adjusted considering he's an only child and never had a mother. Lots of that is in upbringing and values. He is absolutely my best friend.

Lots of dads miss out. I know some who couldn't tell you anything about their kids – they're always out working. Now I'm self-employed and I've never missed sports day, or a parents' evening. He is the priority."

Roxanne Houshmand, 32, and Ilias, 5

"In 2008, I took a brief break from my job and went travelling, where I met a man who seemed to have all the answers. I was working full-time and had a tremendous amount of responsibility; I was turning 30 the following year and felt a sudden panic that life might slip by, we decided to have a baby, easy in the knowledge that I would go back to work and my partner would support me all the way.

In June 2009, my son was born. It was a complicated birth and I took several months to recover. During this time my partner had a change of heart and I found myself alone, a single mother. When my son was just a few weeks old, I went back to work. I didn't know what else to do and I was lucky to have an employer who let me bring him in with me; he became part of the team, he took his first steps at the office.

Roxanne Houshmand celebrates her son Ilias' birthday Roxanne Houshmand celebrates her son Ilias' birthday
My daily routine has changed over the years along with my son's needs, as he's become more independent. He has been in full-time nursery since he turned three. His needs have changed and I want to be there to help with his reading each evening, make sure he prepped for numerous activities at school. I made sure I squeezed my meetings in Monday to Thursday, leaving Friday to pick him up early from school. I enrol in any school trips too.

The words that hurt most are: 'Mummy I don't want to go to after school club, why can't you pick me up at the same time as the other mummies do?' There are times when I live with a constant battle in my mind that he has missed out on exclusive parenting time, although not having a partner meant our time together was special and I didn't have to compromise on anything meaning I have a very close bond with my little boy.

There are the feelings of envy when I drive past our local coffee shop on my route home and see the mums and dads sitting together having a coffee with the kids, chatting and talking about Woodcraft folk groups and similar activities, while I run to get my son from after school club.

Generally my day is filled with chaos, guilt, euphoria and waves of love for my son. I'm one of five children, my mum managed to keep all of us alive and work as well, so I have had it instilled in me that anything is achievable and to take every opportunity to build the life you desire no matter the obstacles".

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