We Are Single Parents In A Pandemic. We're Coping But Don't Forget Us

Solo parenting can be lonely and frightening, particularly for those working on the NHS frontline. Acts of kindness make all the difference.
Genevieve Roberts with her daughter Astrid and son Xavi.
Genevieve Roberts with her daughter Astrid and son Xavi.

It was assembling the dinosaur car for my son’s first birthday that did it. The burst of pride as I mastered the electric drill, then the pang of frustration as I realised the screw had pierced one piece of plastic rather than pinning two. It had taken half a week of spare moments to try (and fail) to assemble. I swore and cried quietly so my children didn’t see – a fittingly domestic final straw.

I feel lucky. I’m in lockdown with the two people I love most, my three-year-old daughter Astrid and one-year-old son Xavi. As a solo mum, I’ve always been grateful for the support and love of friends, family and neighbours – and still feel that now, although everything is one step removed.

It’s been forty-eight days since I had an adult conversation without social distancing. I’ve spoken to neighbours from afar – one family made my children an amazing story book, another senses any time I need a virtual hug – and friends and family, with screens dividing us. But as many of the two million single parent families and eight million single adults living alone in the UK will have discovered, it’s not quite the same.

Before lockdown, practical support helped me maintain a career and spend the bulk of my children’s time with them – from the nursery they attend three days a week to the cleaner who transforms our house (now swimming in Lego soup). So, while I’ve been parenting solo, I’ve never been alone. Until now.

There’s increasing concern among single parents we’ve been forgotten. A group of solo mums submitted evidence this week to the Women & Equalities committee on the unequal impact of Covid-19 on single mums. It’s also been sent to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, and individuals are contacting their MPs in the hope single parents will be heard.

In New Zealand, from the beginning of lockdown, all single adults – with or without children – were able to extend their bubble and meet up with one other individual or family unit. In the UK, some solo mums have already taken this initiative themselves. Others are waiting, hoping to be remembered.

I support lockdown. But with friends in my solo mums network talking of increased levels of depression, I’m concerned. If single adults – with children and without – aren’t able to link up with other adults, will we have a new mental health curve to flatten, too?

'I miss the reassurance of an adult hug.'
'I miss the reassurance of an adult hug.'

Some parents have coping strategies. Claire Hickson, solo mum to Margot, 3, in south-east London, is enjoying her newfound social life of Zoom calls and streaming parties now everyone is in the same boat. “I can join drinks and watch theatre without finding a babysitter,” she says. “Long may that continue.”

Evenings are less predictable in our house. One night, when neither child showed any sign of sleep, I’d hoped to catch up with friends, then work, but realised I was too tired for either – and screamed. Immediately, I felt ashamed.

I wasn’t shouting at my children, but because there was no one to give me a break. When bedtime does go well and I get an hour or two to myself – even just to clear the chaos of the day – I return to my room to find the children snuggled up and delight to see them. My daughter, like many others, had started having nightmares, but they’ve stopped now we’re all sharing a bed.

There have been moments when I’ve wished for a partner. Not just to row about toy assembly with, but to share my worries about the threat of sickness, which is always in the shadows. And for the life affirmingness of sex.

I say this mindful that friends with partners are longing for time without them, and that, far more seriously, lockdown has exposed the fragility and danger of home life for many adults and children.

My worst fear is of the virus leaving my children orphaned or forcing them to grow up too quickly while I’m hospitalised. Or of them falling sick and being hospitalised. Like all those who haven’t lost a loved one, I count myself fortunate. But there’s a secondary fear for solo parents: the financial concerns facing everyone are magnified in families where only one person can work.

For Anna Taylor, a self-employed childminder in Salisbury, it’s hard to ignore. “I have no money coming in. I’m also thinking hard about future work decisions, as I need to decide if I’m able to bring the ‘risk’ of other children into my home. I may be supported by the self-employed scheme, but they’ve changed the goalposts a lot with the childcare sector. The worry is overwhelming.”

Her daughter Eadie, 5, is missing her first year of school and she worries for her development as an only child, with so little play and stimulation from other kids. “The future is very uncertain and I find that hard, especially at a time when we are isolated. A social bubble would make things so much more manageable.”

“I keep thinking 'one day at a time' but worry how much longer this will go on for and how much longer I can sustain it.”

For single parents who are key workers, the juggle can be unsustainable. One solo mum in Scotland, who works as an obstetrician has been delivering babies throughout the crisis. She knew her risk of catching Covid-19 was high – so her son lived with her parents while she remained at home. Her instinct was right: she got sick and spent a feverish time seeing no one, and desperately missing her son. She’s now back on the wards.

Another friend from North Yorkshire has managed to fit her NHS work seeing patients around key worker childcare. “My youngest has started school early as her nursery shut,” she explains. “I’ve changed my hours of work to nine to three. I’ve lost my wraparound care and my family’s practical and emotional support. There’s this constant ‘what if’ anxiety. What if I get it from this lovely patient in front of me? What if I get really unwell? What if the worst happens?”

Two of her NHS colleagues have died. “I am lonely. Sometimes I am sad and frightened. I keep thinking ‘one day at a time’ but worry how much longer this will go on for and how much longer I can sustain it. I try my best to be a good parent and do some schooling with my son (reading, writing and numbers) but I am so, so tired. I snap; sometimes I cry.”

Her children miss their grandparents and their sleep is disrupted. “My six-year-old says: ‘I love you more now that the virus is here. Sometimes I need to be next to you so I can touch you.’ I find myself jealous of anyone who says they have more time with their children when I have less.” The saving grace has been the kindness of others: “I’ve found food, baking, flowers on my doorstep.”

'Watching my children’s friendship grow is magical.'
'Watching my children’s friendship grow is magical.'

An NHS worker in a scientific role in Northamptonshire told me her daughter, who will soon turn three, has moved childcare twice since March – and the increased cost without help from her parents is taking its toll. “My commute, which used to be my respite, is now nursery rhymes and tired crying. I haven’t even seen inside the nursery as it’s drop at the door,” she says.

Each day is a struggle – she’s been offered telephone counselling but it’s hard with a two-year-old needing attention. “One positive is the food bank is currently delivering so I don’t have to take my daughter and let her see us receiving bags of tinned food.” She wishes she could thank people for their generosity. Equally: “I don’t want her growing up remembering it and thinking it’s normal.”

In Brighton, where we live, I’ve started running, pushing the buggy as I go. Not because I’ve got time on my hands or want a new hobby, but because I know, from when my dad died, that my way through grief is exercise.

As a family, we’ve created new rituals – each Sunday I roast a chicken, which the children love, and make soup from the leftovers, because who wastes food anymore? I’ve bought a cargo bike, a commitment to cycle rather than drive when lockdown eases. Watching my children’s friendship grow is magical.

My day is full of cuddles to comfort, to protect, to nurture. I wouldn’t trade them for anything – but I miss the reassurance of an adult hug.

• Genevieve Roberts is the author of Going Solo: My choice to become a mother using a donor (Little, Brown).