Is there really such a thing as the ‘average’ family? And are two parents better than one?
Sarah Bellinger thinks not. The 43-year-old healthcare assistant is a very busy single mum-of-seven who says she can do just as good a job as two parents can.
She is determined to change the stereotypical image of single mums living off benefits. Despite bringing up her children on her own, she says she has never relied on handouts and at times has had two jobs to make ends meet.
Sarah, of Wickor Way, Emsworth, had always hoped for a big family and never expected to be a single parent.
She says: ‘I do get negativity. It’s the way people look at you when they ask how many children I’ve got. When I tell them I invariably get asked “why?” and I feel I have to explain every time. But I shouldn’t have to. There shouldn’t be this stigma.
‘There are lots of people in my situation through no fault of their own. Some people may have children just to get a council house or benefits, but the majority of us were in long-term relationships which have broken down due to circumstances out of our hands.’
Sarah met her ex-husband when she was seven years old. They became an item as teenagers.
She says: ‘We married when I was 20. Two years later Andrew, who is now 20, came along.
‘We separated when William, who is now 13, was a baby due to personal circumstances. Something happened that we couldn’t get over, but we have remained good friends ever since and my husband came on holiday with us for many years.
‘I did not plan on becoming a single mum, definitely not. It was just circumstances. The marriage collapse was out of our hands. We really couldn’t cope with the situation we were in.’
Sarah and her first husband had four children together – there are also Danielle, 19, and Samantha, 16.
A few years later Sarah met the father of her youngest three children – Henry, eight, Abbie, five and Alfie, three.
‘It was quite a difficult relationship and we were on and off,’ says Sarah.
‘It was probably better for the children and us that we separated. It was not always happy. But he is still a big part of the children’s lives.’
The entire family, including both dads and in-laws, enjoyed Christmas dinner together.
Looking after seven children is not easy, even though the eldest two have now left home and live with their father.
A typical day involves getting up at 5.45am to get the children washed and dressed. They all leave the house by 8.10am and the first drop-off is at Warblington School in Havant, then on to Bosmere School, then to Fairfield School.
Sarah then goes back to Warblington pre-school to drop off Alfie before heading to work – which could be anywhere in south Hampshire.
But she is always back to pick the children up from nursery and school.
She explains how she copes.
‘Being able to look after all the children is down to routine. I did not plan on being a single parent but, unfortunately, I am. I get on with it because I have no choice.
‘You still have to live. You still have to make the children’s lives as good as you can.
‘You can sit there feeling sorry for yourself and dwelling on everything and give up because you can’t cope – or be positive and live each day as if it’s your last and make your children’s lives happy.
‘It’s not my children’s fault I’m single. Sometimes it’s tough. It’s a struggle and you don’t get time to yourself. But that’s a small sacrifice. I chose to have the children.’
Sarah says she would like to change the attitude that single parents are ‘scroungers’.
‘The attitude is that you did it for a council house and benefits,’ says Sarah.
‘I’m not in a council house and I don’t survive on benefits. I receive a small top-up in housing benefit, but I work and always have.’
Sarah, who was in The News in 2012 when Havant Borough Council helped find her emergency accommodation after the family had to leave a property in Alton, adds: ‘I think it’s so important for my children that they can see that, yes, I might be a single parent, but I earn my money. Sometimes I’ve had two jobs to make ends meet.
‘It’s been tough. I have to pay for childcare and I don’t get any benefits apart from working child tax credits. People completely underestimate how hard it is. I’ve struggled but I’ve done it all myself.
‘I would like to change people’s attitudes. Single parents can do just as good a job as two parents. You can’t just give up, you have children and you are responsible for them.’
She adds: ‘I sit there some evenings and want to cuddle up to somebody. Especially if I’ve just come in from work and had children screaming at me.
‘I might be feeling like I want to slouch but I can’t. There is washing to be done, meals to cook and only you to do it. You just get on with it.’
She hasn’t given up on finding Mr Right, saying: ‘My ideal situation would be that I fall in love with somebody and live happily ever after.’
Gingerbread is a charity which works to tackle the stigma around single parents by dispelling myths and labels. It also supports and lobbies on behalf of single parents.
Research carried out by the charity shows:
- Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of households with dependent children are single parent families and there are two million single parents in Britain today.
- This figure has remained consistent since the mid-1990s.
- Less than two per cent of single parents are teenagers.
- The average age of single parents is 38.1.
- Around half of single parents had their children within marriage – 49 per cent are separated, divorced or widowed.
- 63.4 per cent of single parents are in work, up 19.6 percentage points since 1996.
The employment rate for single parents varies depending on the age of their youngest child.
- Once their children are 12 or over, single parents’ employment rate is similar to, or higher than, the employment rate for mothers in couples – 71 per cent of single parents whose child is 11-15 are in work.
- There are three million children living in a single parent household – 23 per cent of all dependent children.
- Around 8 per cent of single parents are fathers.
To find out more and get support, go to gingerbread.org.uk.