My phone was buzzing off the hook. Congratulations were in order. As a single mum in lockdown with her two young boys, I had supposedly helped influence the government policy on support bubbles. How could that be, when I hadn’t even found the time to clean my bathroom?
Two weeks earlier, enraged by the Cummings saga that was dividing the nation, I took matters into my own hands. Bundling my youngest into his bike seat and placing my six-year-old on his bike, we cycled to the home of Britain’s most wanted man.
As we neared the crowd outside the townhouse, I felt nervous. Holding my youngest on my hip and pulling my eldest in close, I strode through the parting reporters. “I’m just here to post a letter,” I stated to the policeman guarding their home. “I can take that for you,” he replied as I relinquished my handwritten letter addressed to Mr and Mrs Cummings. My greatest hope, as I watched him disappear round the side of their house, was that Dominic Cummings would take a moment to read my letter before – I assumed – throwing it in the bin.
Unlike the focus of the nation at the time, my letter wasn’t about whether he should resign or not. Instead, I wanted him – and the government – to understand that his “exceptional circumstances” were how 2.9 million single parents lived daily, pre-lockdown.
When lockdown was introduced in the UK, on 23 March, many single parents lost their support networks at one fell swoop. Trying to balance working, with home schooling, caring for a little one and maintaining a home was impossible. Have you ever wondered what it does to a human to have no meaningful adult contact for weeks on end, or recourse to a hug, while caring for children 24/7?
In my letter, I explained how, prior to lockdown, my two young boys and I all went down with suspected Covid-19. I described this time as “unbearable”. “There wasn’t one day where I didn’t cry from the pressures, the exhaustion and the worries I was under.” Relatives and friends dropped off food and sent packages, for which I’m eternally grateful, but it didn’t remove the loneliness.
As the days became weeks, this turned into complete isolation. Even phone calls with friends seemed impossible with a little one who followed me around like a tail. Over the weeks my sense of failure as a mother deepened as I cried too much and angered too quickly. By the time lockdown began to ease I’d fallen into a hole that was all-consuming; I’m still struggling to emerge now.
Two days after my impassioned letter was delivered, an email appeared in my inbox. It took me a few moments to work out who it was from. “Thanks so very much for your moving and powerful letter and for dropping it round,” Mary Wakefield began. The letter I’d feared would be discarded hadn’t just been read; it had made an impression.
Mary went on to say that the letter had helped her and Dominic understand the predicament of single mothers. He was keen to connect and see what the government could do for isolated single parents. Less than two weeks later I was speaking with a policy adviser at No 10 advocating for social bubbles, priority shopping and greater support for single parents. Two days after the phone call, support bubbles for single parents were announced by the prime minister at the daily press conference.
Could they really never have considered single parents before? For me, having been writing about single motherhood for years, the answer is a resounding yes. People don’t often understand our lives, and many aren’t interested in trying to. In normal times the experience of the single mum includes being passed over for promotion, discriminated against in child benefit rules, and judged as a bad parent for not meeting the standards of a family with twice the resources. It’s well known that the prime minister is more famous for berating single mums than supporting them.
I’m under no illusion that my letter was the only factor in this policy change. Support bubbles weren’t a new idea – New Zealand introduced them first, and many single parents in the UK lobbied for them. But, sometimes, a personal story can cut through the stats and facts to provide a picture of real life. Whatever the motive behind the shift in policy, single parents have finally been identified as a group with specific needs in this pandemic.
Time will tell whether this is a one-off, or whether single parents are being given the recognition and rights we deserve to enable us to navigate life on a more equal footing. This isn’t the end of my campaigning journey. Single parents need practical, emotional and financial support during and after lockdown. To ensure this happens, single parenthood should be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and afforded the same rights as married coupledom. Only then will policymakers consider us as anything more than an afterthought, and only then will our experiences of discrimination be treated as such in law.
• Ella Davis writes a blog on the trials and tribulations of life in London as a single mother to two young boys