Laura Mucha: Actually, I Haven’t Met My Father

As a child it was hard not to compare myself to people with two parents – EVERYONE else seemed to have them. It wasn’t just the people around me, it was the adverts, books, films, TV programs, French classes where, for years, we were asked to describe what our mother and father did. (I lied. Not least because my French wasn’t good enough age 11 to say “Actually, I haven’t met my father, so I cannot confirm his current profession – or if he’s even alive. But I can tell you about my grandfather, who I call Dad?”)

It made me feel like an outsider, inferior, shameful. While that helped me develop empathy for others, it was also uncomfortable and sad.

I remember one of my teachers telling the entire class that single parent families were inferior to those with two – hers is a common view. But it’s not backed up by evidence. While single parents can fare worse than double parent families, when you account for the impact of poverty, this difference dwindles[1]. Given single parents are far more likely to be poor[2], it’s unsurprising we conflate the two.

Staying single can be a hugely positive choice. I interviewed a father from Sri Lanka who decided to stay single after his wife died in her 40s, leaving him with three children under twelve. “I could have settled with somebody,” Kumar explained, ”but I needed to do something for my children: I had to show fatherly and motherly love because they wouldn’t know their mother’s love. Love [is] what you take on board to your future.”[3]

Dad’s New Girlfriend, Laura Mucha, from Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Kumar was right – it is love that we take with us. And sometimes choosing to stay single is the best way to ensure that children feel that love. In some circumstances, children in step-families are psychologically worse off than children with single parents[4]. And in the Harvard Bereavement Study (which followed parents and children for years following their loss), children whose parents dated in the first year after losing their partner had more emotional or behavioural problems (among other difficulties) than those whose parents stayed single.

Albatross, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

So why, then, is single parenthood, or any deviation from the two parent family stigmatised? Why don’t we see single parents more frequently and, crucially, more positively in children’s poetry?

In 2020, 58,346 children and young people were asked by the National Literacy Trust whether they saw themselves in the books they read. 37.3% of those that received free school meals didn’t. (The number was slightly lower for those who do pay for meals, at 31.9%.)[5]

Given single parent families are significantly more likely to live in poverty[6] and poverty is linked with lower levels of literacy[7], children in these households are precisely the demographic that we need to support. Surely being able to see themselves and their family situation in the poetry they’re reading is fundamental to that?

Everyone, by Laura Mucha, from Being Me, Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

Not everyone grows up with two parents. Some only have one. Some have two but one is highly abusive and it’s not safe to stay in touch. Some have none and live with family members. Some live in foster care or institutions.

We know this. We have robust stats that show this represents a significant percentage of children – both here and around the world. And yet, how often do these children see the two-parent family portrayed as the norm, to which they and everyone should aspire? How often do they compare themselves to this norm and find themselves lacking?

How often do they see themselves and their families in the poetry they read?

[1] Treanor, M.,‘Social Assets, Low Income and Child Social, Emotional and Behavioural Wellbeing’, Families, Relationships and Societies, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 7, 2016, pp. 209–228.

[2] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf

[3] I interviewed Kumar for my book, We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) – Kumar appears in Chapter Fourteen, Borrowed People

[4] Amato PR, Keith B. Parental divorce and the well-being of children: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 1991 Jul;110(1):26-46.

[5] National Literacy Trust, Diversity and children and young people’s reading in 2020 https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/diversity-and-children-and-young-peoples-reading-in-2020/

[6] European Parliament, The situation of single parents in the EU, Study Requested by the FEMM committee, November 2020 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/659870/IPOL_STU(2020)659870_EN.pdf  

[7] National Literacy Trust, Read On, Get On, A strategy to get England’s children reading.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Being Me, Rita’s Rabbit, We Need to Talk About Love and Dear Ugly Sisters (which won the NSTBA Award for Poetry in 2021). As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as the Royal Society of Medicine, National Literacy Trust and UNICEF to improve the lives of children.


One thought on “Laura Mucha: Actually, I Haven’t Met My Father

  1. Excellent piece, Laura. Something I’ve never thought about. When you put an anthology together you are very aware of the need for diversity. But not so much one parent families. Thank you.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s