mother going mad while sitting with children

Source: Pexels by Gustavo Fring

There are in the UK approximately 1.8 million lone parents, representing a mere 25% of all families; 90% of these are single mothers. These figures have remained stagnant for over a decade now. Therefore, it is inconceivable as to why, time and time again; single motherhood has been framed as such a big problem.

The creation of a moral panic around single motherhood

Over many years there have been numerous moral panics, that have created an underclass around single mothers. These have the effect of making this group of people, seem like they are deviant in some way.

Moral panics crop up, off the back of attitudes and perceptions around what makes a good mother. However, as Jill Churchill (American Author) once said:

There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one

Historically the concept of what makes a good mother has suggested, that devotion and self-sacrifice are at the centre of the mother’s role.

Good mother vs bad mother

Sarah Connor in the Terminator films is an atypical example of this concept of the perfect mother. All of humanity is reliant on her protecting her son from assassination. Thus, she portrays motherhood as something which is her sole identity; and one which is all-consuming.  

The advent of second-wave feminism sought to shift motherhood away from this ‘biological imperative’ towards a socially constructed model of motherhood. One which separates it from the natural ‘nurturing’ by instinct theory; towards one of maternal practice.  Also, tied up with this narrative, is that ‘good’ mothers were believed to be at the forefront of preserving the ‘moral tone’, and acting as the antiseptic quality in society. Thus, these mothers are believed to be the model for all mothers to aspire to be; a set of standards which if not adhered to threaten the very core of society.

Alternatively, the concept of a ‘bad’ mother is, one which deviates away from societal norms; which are the pillars of the traditional notion of the nuclear family. Moreover, these non-traditional mothers, many of which are single parents, are subject to extensive stigmatisation; and are positioned as being the cause of great social anxiety.

‘Bad’ mothers are classed as selfish and immoral; and often linked to the production of problem children, who are the scourge of society. These images of deviancy are then magnified through our media and reality shows such as ‘Jeremy Kyle’; judging this underclass of ‘un-fit’ mothers yet further.

However, it is more complex than that. Deviancy has a historical agency, which in the 1960s, shifted the focus of the stigmatized to preclude divorced and widowed mothers. The former bore much shame, whilst excluding their poor unfortunate children; who were deemed the by-product of their ‘marital fate’. The latter were to be pitted and thus, deserving of a lesser stigmatised status.

The never-married mothers, therefore, continued to bear the brunt of the stigma surrounding single motherhood. The emergence of second-wave feminism and a shortage of eligible men; saw changing attitudes toward those deemed as the underclass. Poverty was no longer seen as a weakness of character or a moral deficiency; instead, it was viewed as a structural condition; and one which people had little or no control over.

An underclass

The term ‘Under Class’ is also synonymous with notions of the ‘undeserving poor’; and is a term that has been adopted by the media as a narrative to describe a group of people who pose a threat to society. It is no coincidence that the discourse around an ‘Underclass’, took off after the end of the cold war; to fill a void in its wake. Thus, the ‘Underclass’ debate, is one which argues that the poor are to blame for their own situation. Moreover, the media can be seen to collude with political power; to frame the ‘Underclass’ as being undeserving of public and state support.

The 1980s saw a huge shift in how society operated; and vast challenges for society as a whole. High levels of male unemployment and a significant rise in single-mother households; caused phenomenal instability in key social institutions.  Thus, the concept of an underclass was used to classify these new and prevailing social trends, which were threatening society at its very core.

Increasing numbers of single mothers now became dependent on the state, instead of having a husband or partner to depend on. Moreover, this shift in our society marked a change in political ideology towards state-controlled welfare; and away from “Beveridge’s ‘cradle to the grave’ principles”. Thus, seeing more of a return to the laissez-faire attitudes and political principles; used to distinguish which citizens were deemed deserving enough to receive state welfare support. Thatcher referred to this as a rolling back of the state. Cameron classed it as austerity measures; however, the intentions and justifications were the same.

Much political positionality has directed the discourse of lone motherhood, towards one which ignores their true purpose in society; whilst demonising them at the same time.  John Major’s back to ‘basics campaign’ and David Cameron’s return to ‘family values’, were both political ploys to sway public opinion. The resulting moral panics they created; have led to further anxieties over the emergence of a so-called British ‘underclass’. Single mothers are labeled as scroungers and have come to epitomise the welfare dependency culture of the underclass.

How does the underclass narrative become a moral panic?

It is one thing to define sectors of society as being an ‘underclass’, but how does that become a moral panic?

Moral panics are the by-product of anxieties that are blown out of proportion. Social anxieties take root from conservative, political, and moral values. However, these anxieties are irrational; and those who perpetuate the panic are not “not really in control of their fears or their behaviours. These take the form of episodes or periods in time in which certain sectors of society or a certain group of people are, as defined by Stanley Cohen; portrayed as “Folk-devils”.

Thus, they take on a deviant persona; which is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media. Moreover, it involves a mobilisation of societal anxieties, by the media; to feed into pre-existing stigma and stereotyping, for political gains (as mentioned earlier). This places the deviant group at the centre; whilst obscuring the structural conditions which would effectively exonerate them.

Final thoughts

It is fair to say that single motherhood has been subjected to vast and unscrupulous discrimination. Considering the small percentage of the population that they account for; it is inconceivable how much stigma and anxiety surrounds this sector of society. At its very core exists societal norms; which sets moral standards and a hierarchy around motherhood. The judgments passed onto many single mothers; ultimately categorise them as being an ‘Underclass’. Unfortunately, history has continually positioned single mothers as being deviants; and blamed them for all which is wrong in society.

It is only through the changing of attitudes that moral panics, around single motherhood, will be rendered a thing of the past, and these unjust judgments will disappear.

Published by Karen Burns

A 50-year-old mother of 3. Graduated from Warwick University in 2021 (with a degree in Social Studies). I have chronic illness, which affects my mobility. However, I love writing and I am a prolific writer of poetry as well.

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