‘I’m sorry if this lands,’ the man (let’s call him Dick Head) said, leaning across the pub table towards me, ‘but the reason so many young men have issues today is because they’re being brought up by single mothers.
It was a dickish thing to say, not least because he knew full well that I was the single mum of a young adult son.
He then proceeded to list the various reasons why young men who were raised by women were failing at life.
I sat there, oscillating between feeling gobsmacked and wanting to smack the arrogant smirk from his face.
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time I’d had to listen to or read something blaming the ills of the world upon single mothers, and every time I’d felt a weird mixture of defiance, righteous indignation and a smidgen of self doubt. Was my son at a disadvantage because I, a woman, was raising him?
Fast forward a few years to today. My son is now 26. Last week he set off to Ukraine for a year, where he’s working as a project manager for an aid organisation, helping bring much needed relief to the victims of the war there.
To say that I’m proud of his bravery and courage would be an understatement. And when I saw him off on his adventure the other day I had a sudden flashback to that night in the pub a few years ago and the man’s arrogant and ignorant jibe.
Not bad for a young guy raised by a single mum, I thought to myself as I watched my boy stride off into his brave new future. My boy who also has a degree in Politics and a Masters in International Relations and more importantly, is a thoroughly nice, hilariously funny and hugely humble human being.
Looking back on our life together when he was younger I can safely say that, as the son of a single mum, my son had a somewhat maverick upbringing. My marriage to his father broke up when he was four and from that moment on, we did things differently.
When I was younger I’d dreamed of doing the traditional two parent, happy family thing but that was not to be and, rather than wallow in self pity, I embraced life as a single parent.
Until my son was 12 we lived in a shabby but cosy terraced house in London. I was slowly but surely building a career as a writer and, as the sole bread-winner, I had to supplement my book income with various other jobs - one of which was running weekly writing workshops for two London Boroughs.
I was only able to get child care to cover one of my weekly groups, so every Tuesday night I’d pack a backpack with toys, games and snacks and bring my son along with me to the library where I ran my group.
I also had to take him to TV interviews about my books and various other author events. Sometimes I’d feel guilty that he’d be hightailing it around London with me when he could have been at home if there’d been another parent present but everyone who met him loved him and made a fuss of him and he got to experience some really fun events.
When my son was 12 things weren’t working out for him in his new high school and I’d had no joy trying to sort it out with his teacher (I also found out from someone in the local education department that bullying was endemic in the school and nothing was being done about it). The traditional course of action might have been to tough it out for yet more months, causing yet more misery but I was livid that they couldn’t keep my boy safe. I remember turning to him in the car on the way home from my writing group one night and saying to him, ‘You are never, ever going back there again,’ and feeling like a f***king lioness.
I’ll never forget the joy and relief on his face as my words sank in. I then assembled a maverick crew of ‘teaching staff’ to help me home-school him while we waited for a place to come up in another local school, as I was having to work four days a week as an editor to keep a roof over our heads.
An author friend of mine taught him English, my retired teacher dad taught him Geography and History (with a very Irish-centric curriculum!). One of my writing group members, a lovely eighty-something year old man named Ian, taught my son Maths. As a young man, Ian had been part of the team who developed radar in World War 2 - he was coming to my writing group for support in writing his memoir - and I saw this as a wonderful opportunity for my son to learn about life during the war too.
Any time I felt a pang of guilt about my son not receiving a traditional education I would counter it with the thought that he was being taught by fascinating people who were true experts in their field.
When it was my day to teach my son I’d take him up to London to go to a museum or see a play at the National. I remember there being a lot of fun and laughter on those days and it was a joy to see him flourishing again.
When he still hadn’t been offered a place in another local school after two terms I asked him if he fancied a fresh start outside of London. This was something that I'd privately been hankering after but had assumed he’d want to stay put. To my surprise he practically bit my hand off at the offer.
I brought up Google maps and did the online equivalent of randomly sticking a pin in a place that fit our criteria, namely to be out of London but still easy to get back to see friends and family. I’d never been to the place my cursor landed on before but on a quick visit I instantly fell in love with it and three weeks later - yes, three weeks! - we’d moved into a cottage there.
It was the third brand new location we’d moved to in my son’s twelve years, having moved from the Midlands to London when he was four, and again I worried that he maybe wasn’t getting the stability that he needed. But as soon as he started at one of the local high schools he made friends and settled in.
And now he’s older I can see how all of our moving about has helped rather than hindered him, giving him the courage to up sticks and move to Russia to work for six months three years ago, and now to move to Ukraine.
A few years ago my son and I were having a heart to heart and I said to him that my one regret when it came to parenting him was that he should have come from a broken home.
He looked at me as if I was deranged. ‘What do you mean, broken?’
‘I mean, I’m really sorry that your dad and I weren’t able to stay together for you,’ I replied.
He shook his head, gave me a hug and said, ‘Mum, there is nothing broken about our home.’
It was a beautiful moment and one I’ll never forget. And it made me realise that nothing can be broken if it’s filled with love.
We may have had a lot of homes over the years - 12 to be exact! - but they’ve always been full of love and laughter. They’ve always been calm and peaceful.
Society conditions us to believe that things have to be a certain way. But as someone who’s always instinctively questioned the norm (or an awkward bastard as my dad would put it) I can tell you that there’s such joy and adventure to be found in ripping up the so-called rules and doing things differently.
And yes, that might cause certain people to make dickish jibes about you but maybe, just maybe, that’s because deep down they envy your spirit and it triggers their own insecurities.
So, until next week, here’s to being mavericks and making our own rules.
Loved this post. What an inspiration you are Siobhan. You must be as proud of your lovely son, as he is of you. Best wishes to you both xx
What a wonderful childhood your son had. Your love and pride for him shines through in all you say and do and it was lovely to read about it. Beautifully written and I hope we hear a little of his time abroad and wish him well x