Lone parent families and COVID-19

In episode 7 of the Generation Pandemic podcast we focus on how COVID-19 has doubled down on lone parent families. Joining host Catherine McDonald are Professor Susan Harkness from the University of Bristol; Dr Jim Kaufman from the COVID Realities project; Niamh Kelly, Policy Manager at One Family Ireland and Stacey, a lone parent of two children. Following a first hand account from Stacey as to how her family experienced the pandemic, the panel discuss whether it was inevitable that lone parents would experience the pandemic in the way they did and how we ensure they don’t experience it in the same way should it happen again.



Catherine McDonald  0:04 

Hello, and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network, looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine McDonald, and today we’re looking at how the pandemic has affected lone parent families. Joining me are Professor Susan Harkness from the University of Bristol, Dr. Jim Kaufman from the COVID Realities project and Niamh Kelly, Policy Manager at One Family Ireland. We’re going to start though by hearing from Stacey, a lone parent of two children, who begins by talking us through her experiences of parenting during the pandemic.

Stacey  0:44 

At first, I guess it was exciting because I was furloughed. It was a break that I wouldn’t have normally had. I was at home with their kids, summer was coming, it was it was getting warmer, and it all felt a bit new. And just like a bit of a rest, didn’t expect it to go on that long either. So it didn’t matter. But then as time sort of went on, and it become harder to shop, and then you couldn’t go out. And there was no childcare. And you were stuck in the house with the children who were bored and sad and missing their friends at school and it become harder and harder to manage everything. And it was lonely, really lonely. And there hasn’t been a time where I felt so on my own for so long.

Catherine McDonald  1:29 

And I guess what a lot of us felt whatever our home situation is that there was no definition to the day was there? There was no sort of segmentation where people are coming in or going out, or it’s bath time or bedtime, or it just all seemed to be one big day.

Stacey  1:45 

Exactly that there was no routine. And the days just sort of rolled into each other in the end. But it didn’t make a difference whether it’s the weekend or whether it was a Wednesday, like who knew what day of the week it was because every single day just become the same. And it didn’t feel at that point that there was an end in sight for it.

Catherine McDonald  2:03 

Now, am I right in saying that you’ve got two children, and they’re both primary school age?

Stacey  2:09 

Yes. So at the start of COVID, they were three and five, I think.

Catherine McDonald  2:13 

Wow. So actually, you had a preschool child and a primary school child?

Stacey  2:17 


Catherine McDonald  2:17 

So how did you approach homeschooling? How did that go?

Stacey  2:22 

It was tough. I had one child that wasn’t at school that wanted to get involved with everything the eldest was doing. And I don’t understand the work they do at the moment – it is much, much different to when I was at school. So it was a learning curve for me. And it was stressful. Because I still had stuff to do. There was stuff that I still had to get involved in from my job, and trying to juggle the children and schooling and housework and trying to get shopping done on my own with no help no support because we weren’t allowed to see anyone. It was hard work. And it was stressful.

Catherine McDonald  2:58 

And how quickly did that beginning to take its toll?

Stacey  3:02 

By the end of the year of the first lockdown it felt like I was gonna have a mental breakdown. At some points where I was spending hours and hours with the eldest trying to get her to do her schoolwork. The nights were drawing in it was freezing cold. And it felt like COVID had sort of gone on forever.

 Catherine McDonald  3:21 

And you mentioned earlier that there was no sort of childcare to rely obviously we’d lost the school provision. We weren’t allowed in each other’s homes. Can you talk to me a little bit about those extra services and that extra practical help that you usually rely upon that you had to do without during the lockdowns?

Stacey  3:40 

So being the lone parent, the children used to go to family, at least every other weekend. At school, they’d have breakfast club, and all of that was taken away. And it just become me and them. So I would go for days without speaking to an adult. The only time I might speak to somebody is if I was in the shop on my once a week shopping trip. And I felt like I lost part of my identity during lockdown.

Catherine McDonald  4:05 

That part of your identity that we get through socialising and being with the people who make us who we are?

Stacey  4:11 

Yeah, even going to work. The children’s dad passed away two years before lockdown happened. So even going to work and seeing people at work that formed a good part of my social life. And all of a sudden that wasn’t there anymore. And it become tough. It was lonely and there was no way out of it.

Catherine McDonald  4:31 

I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. So we’ve we’ve talked about the homeschooling. We’ve talked about those extra services, whether informal via family or more formal sort of via breakfast club at school that you often usually rely on. What about your finances? So you mentioned you were furloughed? Did your finances take a hit?

Stacey  4:52 

They didn’t at first because we weren’t going out spending anything or there wasn’t the trips but then as time went on, I was losing money that I would have earned at work. And because we were home, we were using more gas, electric things were costing more. And where there was reports of everyone having so much more money than they were used to, that quickly dried up, especially when the prices of everything started going up. And the food prices started rising in supermarkets, especially at the start, when there was so much panic buying, you couldn’t buy what you were usually buying, and you have to buy sort of what was there at the time, there wasn’t the money there. And it was wondering where that money was gonna come from, because you couldn’t go out and earn anything or do extra overtime.

Catherine McDonald  5:35 

The overtime is that something you would normally rely on?

Stacey  5:38 

I work in sales. So I rely on sales to do extra on my sales to earn extra commission, whereas all that went. I had had two jobs before, whereas that had stopped. So money just sort of dwindled into nothing really.

Catherine McDonald  5:54 

And what did keep you going?

Stacey  5:56 

Knowing that there was other people in the same situation, and knowing that no matter what happened, my kids needed me, because they had no one else to rely on.

Catherine McDonald  6:05 

And how are the children?

Stacey  6:07 

They’re fine for two little girls that have been through so much. They, they are amazing.

Catherine McDonald  6:12 

That’s great. That’s great to hear. So Jim, if I could bring you in now, how typical is Stacey’s experience when it comes to parenting alone during the pandemic?

Jim Kaufman  6:22 

I think there are a number of things that Stacy has mentioned, that will really resonate, certainly with the other single parents who are part of the COVID Realities project. I guess the thing that Stacy puts really well is just the cumulative impact of lockdown and of the pandemic. And how that weighs differently on different people and perhaps has a heavier weight or you know, was a heavier burden to carry if you were carrying it on your own one thing after another of having to manage of never being able to fully switch off, we know that single parents are more likely to be getting by on low incomes. And the work of getting by on the low income is work. Getting by requires an awful lot of thought and planning. And one of the things that happened in the pandemic for everybody, I guess, is that that became much more difficult. So lots of the practices that low income families have for getting by on limited insufficient means became impossible. So like Stacey mentioned, the panic buying at the start of the pandemic meant that everyday shopping practices of looking for the best bargain, trying to find the best deals, shopping in different places became impossible. And you know, people were having in certain circumstances, if they were isolated having to use deliveries and to buy things online, there was less choice. People were less able to kind of make the incomes that they have stretch, also the impact on parents’ mental health. And that’s something that we found as a very common theme of conversation among our participants and not being able to access other forms of support the relationships that they normally get help and support from they were cut off from.

Catherine McDonald  8:22 

And also that parenting from work issue in that we were all living and working in the same space. Was that a theme that came through?

Jim Kaufman  8:31 

Yeah, for sure. That’s definitely something that many people have mentioned. Although I should perhaps say that some people also welcomed the flexibility or well at the time, it wasn’t flexibility, but the the ability to work from home. So there was something about that for some people, for sure. Not for everybody. But for some people for whom working from home was perhaps an improvement, they were saving money on the commute. And also it made picking up their children easier and things like this. So there’s something there. That’s that’s quite interesting, although obviously, it doesn’t apply to everyone, certainly not for people who were unable to work from home. The other thing that people talk about having to deal with and having to manage is the uncertainty introduced by the pandemic for people with school aged children, the uncertainty of not knowing whether your child whether their bubble would burst and whether they would have to then come home and self isolate to the uncertainty of not knowing whether you would be able to work or not, or whether you would have to increase your expenditure because your children are at home and not eating at school. So these uncertainties had a real profound effect on people on everyone, but they were definitely particularly acute for people who were parenting on their own.

Catherine McDonald  9:54 

Absolutely. It’s important to remember, isn’t it that the pandemic wasn’t just about the lockdowns. Even when we did get back to a certain degree of normality there was, as you say, still that uncertainty there.

Jim Kaufman  10:06 

Yeah, absolutely. And there were other aspects of the pandemic and the pandemic response, particularly in the UK, where the policy response itself introduced this uncertainty. So I’m thinking about the decision to extend the £20 increase to universal credit. You know, this was a decision that was taken and when it was extended, that was very welcome. But often people were left waiting until the very last minute to know whether that was going to go ahead. And then subsequently, it’s been cut again, but just the impact of not knowing of not being able to plan was something that was common in the pandemic, but it was also something that the policy response, in some cases contributed to rather than mitigated.

Catherine McDonald  10:51 

So Niamh through the research that you’ve done, what were the main issues unique to lone parents during COVID?

Niamh Kelly  10:59 

Well, I think a lot of the issues that were present during COVID, maybe weren’t unique to lone parents. But I think their experience during the pandemic was very unique in terms of the impact on them. One parent families went into the pandemic at a much lower base than other family types so on things like poverty, deprivation, indebtedness, housing insecurity, you name it, they fare worse across all these various indicators. So they were going into the pandemic at a low base. And then I suppose the issues that all families encountered such as working from home and trying to balance childcare, doing the schooling from home, all of these things were multiplied for lone parents, you know, we had feedback of parents saying that they had caring responsibilities not only for their children in the home, but then also for parents who might be cocooning. There’s also the response to the pandemic, both from society and a policy standpoint, a lot of time, it didn’t take into account the needs of lone parents and their specific circumstances. So a good example of this is where at the start of the pandemic, children were viewed as spreading the disease. And they were banned a lot of shops, and you had a situation where parents literally couldn’t get into a shop, and they were being refused entry. You know, we had news stories and reports from our own parents about people bursting into tears, I said to talk because they can’t access it with their children, but they have no choice. But to go in because they don’t have any childcare, they have no nowhere else to leave their children. A lot of the online shopping slots were booked out well in advance. So parents were in a really, really difficult situation, particularly at the start of the pandemic, as the pandemic went on, the policies changed a little bit, but the experience still remain the same. They still had that extra caring responsibility and extra burden of trying to juggle and make ends meet at the same time as caring for their children.

Catherine McDonald  12:48 

And from the start of the pandemic, to where we are now. Have any policies come in that have specifically helped lone parents? Or are we still not there yet?

Niamh Kelly  12:58 

The core areas, I suppose that maybe have seen a bit of a shift is around childcare. But there still hasn’t been whilst there might be more of a – how would you put it? I suppose a will to change and a will to invest in a will to reform childcare, there still hasn’t been the change on the ground that we would like to see. And certainly, that’s something that we push for in our work, we, you know, we feel that one parent families should have free access to childcare, and it should be accessible to them and in their area. And certainly to see that barrier to employment and education removed for lone parent families.

Catherine McDonald  13:04 

Susan, you’ve recently co-authored research that compared the experiences of couple parent families and single mother families in the UK, can you tell us a bit about what you found?

Susan Harkness  13:44 

We know that single parents were particularly adversely affected so many people suffered during the sort of lockdown and COVID pandemic, but I think there were lots of reasons to think that single parents may have had a tougher time. And that includes things like the the pressure of parenting alone, the pressure of homeschooling, and in many of these, these effects really show up in the data. So we know, for example, that the employment of all mothers dropped quite substantially during the pandemic. But we also know that whilst for men and particularly for fathers, their employment has sort of recovered pretty rapidly for single mothers. And mothers generally, there’s been a much slower pattern of return to sort of old norms. And single mothers in particular have seen their recovery to where they were before as being particularly slow. So they sort of still falling behind in terms of employment. And I think that pressure of the uncertainty over schooling and so on is when you have no one to share parenting with is obviously really, really very, very tough. So I think it shows up in some of the sort of data that we’ve looked at, we see that employment has been particularly hard hit, that recoveries has been slower. And of course employment and routine really matter for people’s mental health. And what we see is that single mothers mental health has deteriorated more than for other parents and again, the sort of patterns of recovery, we’ve seen less clear recovery to those norms. So I think particularly hard hit, but also particularly sort of slow patterns of recovery amongst single mothers.

Catherine McDonald  15:12 

Why is it that the employment of single mothers has been slower to sort of return to its baseline than for others?

Susan Harkness  15:19 

I mean, this is really good question. But of course, we know that mothers are taking on the burden of caring. We also know that some sectors have been harder hit than others. And of course, the those that have been hard hit include the, for example, hospitality, where mothers and single mothers are particularly likely to work. So there’s several things going on there. One is the caring responsibilities may be meaning that mothers feel much more constrained or much less able to work. And then we also have this demand side where the occupations that single mothers and mothers in general, indeed, are likely to work and have really been adversely hit by the pandemic. The other thing we know is that mental health of mothers really affects how children do so I think the other really important finding from the data that we looked at is around the mental health of children and single mother families. And we know that it has deteriorated more than for children living in couples. And so I suppose this is something that’s particularly concerning. And in terms of policy, I think, you know, thinking about how we can support single parents much better both in terms of you know, enabling them to work if they want to, but also reducing pressure, for example, through school closures and homeschooling, I think, a really kind of important aspect of supporting people that are parenting alone.

Catherine McDonald  16:36 

And looking back to a pre-COVID world, was it inevitable that lone parent families would experience the pandemic in the way they have?

Susan Harkness  16:44 

Gosh, that’s a really hard question. Obviously, nobody was expecting a pandemic. And in particular, these policies around for example, school closures have been enormously new types of policies, these are things we’ve not really experienced before. I think it was fairly obvious from the outset that school closures would affect some people more than others. And for I think it’s fairly clear that, you know, single parents, if you’re parenting, and there’s only one person doing the parenting, then closing schools is going to be particularly difficult for single parents. And I know in Germany, for example, early on in the pandemic, people were calling for single parents, you know, to be given greater access to schooling in the same way that keyworkers were, for example, so I don’t think was inevitable. And I think the fact that we’ve had these school closures means that some of the effects we’re seeing in the data are really not all that surprising.

Niamh Kelly  17:35 

It’s not inevitable, inevitable. I think this you know, there are some examples from the pandemic itself, of where there’s a will, there’s a way. So if you look at the experience of childcare in Ireland, you know, during the pandemic, the government stepped in and paid wages, and basically took over the system, and worked to get childcare facilities open as soon as possible. I mean, most of the childcare facilities and creches and things in Ireland are operated by private business owners, we don’t really have a state provision of service. But here’s an example of where there is a will there is a way. And I think the same can be said for lone parents. We know that children in one parent families are more likely six times more likely than children in two parent families in Ireland to experience poverty. We know that these children experienced deprivation, we know there’s this really strong link between poor housing and homelessness on one parent family. So so we know all this. And I think this, there are solutions. I know in Ireland anyway, I’m not sure about the UK. But in Ireland, we’ve had several government supported papers and policy recommendations, over the last, say five to eight years, all of them indicating solutions. But there just hasn’t been a political will to step in and make sure that these families are supported. And I suppose that’s where One Family comes in. And we are really working very hard to get some of the recommendations that are coming through from the EU mainstreamed in Ireland. So it’s really looking at child poverty and looking at lone parents as a vulnerable group because we know where these children live, you know, they are and one parent families, a lot of them. So I think that it’s not inevitable. I think that there’s if there’s a political will there, the inevitability can be removed.

Catherine McDonald  19:23 

Sure, Jim, what would you say to that, I guess, you know, to sort of weave in what the policy landscape was that surrounded single parent families pre-COVID, whether there’s anything in that pre-COVID policy landscape that could have made their journey a little easier?

Jim Kaufman  19:38 

I would say that there are things in the recent history of social policy and particularly social security policy. That meant that certain groups of people and definitely among them, single parents were more vulnerable to the disruption and impact that the pandemic brought so ten years of austerity and cuts to a variety of services, local authority funding, particularly local authority services will be one thing. So we were already starting from a kind of system that was sort of low in capacity and not particularly serving people that kind of need single parent families not serving their needs very well. And also cuts and freezes and erosion of the value in out of work benefits will have had a particularly pronounced impact on single parent families when it when it came to the pandemic. So I think like those things definitely contributed. And we couldn’t see a pandemic coming. But like, I think looking back, it’s kind of clear that there were factors that definitely contributed to that to their experience.

Catherine McDonald  20:49 

Stacey, what would you say to that?

Stacey  20:51 

Before COVID, all I had to really worry about is if the kids were off sick. And there’s no part of me that would have thought that it could get as bad as it did. But COVID and everything that come with COVID, by the end of it heightened my anxiety so much it yeah, it’s had a knock on effect for me. And it feels like now there’s always something to worry about – it is what happens if the school shuts? What happens if the kids are ill, and they get sent home and they’ve got an isolate for five days? What happens then if I don’t get paid, because I’m at home, and I can’t do my job, and then I can’t pay the bills? And then if I can’t pay the bills, what happens if I get thrown out of my house? Where would I live? And you’ve got all of that going around your head. And it’s tough, everything has just become a constant worry.

Catherine McDonald  21:42 

Which leads me on to what can we put in place? And I guess this is a question to everyone. What can we put in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen again to people like Stacey, so we can’t ward off the next pandemic. But what can we do from a policy point of view to make sure that Stacy’s experience isn’t the same as the one she’s just had? Jim?

Jim Kaufman  22:05 

So part of the work that we’ve been doing with COVID Realities is working with our participants to come up with a series of policy recommendations that are grounded in their lived experience of getting by on a low income, a significant number, so around 70% of our participants are single parents. So together, we’ve come up with that kind of biggish list of policy recommendations, I won’t go through them all, but there are some that I think would be particularly relevant. And that would make a particular difference for lone parent families. The first set of recommendations that we came up with is around addressing the costs of childhood. So something that came out really strongly in our research was that lots of people just simply couldn’t afford many of the everyday costs of raising children and allowing them to participate with their peers in childhood. So we think there are a number of things that could be done, firstly, increasing child benefit, and making it universal again. We’ve argued that an additional £10 a week for every child would be able to make a significant difference. There are a number of other costs that participants particularly emphasised one would be around free school meals. So there are a number of gaps in provision, it varies by local authority, how its administered, and between the devolved regions. So we argue that there needs to be kind of more universal approach to free school meals. And the kind of goal would be to provide universal free school meals. The other thing that we think really needs to be done is to support schools to eliminate or reduce some of the costs of participation for children. So here we’re thinking about school trips, the cost of uniforms was a significant issue for many of our participants. We think there are things that that need to be done around education and enabling all children to participate. And we think that there should be extra cash based support for families, so not vouchers. So we did see during the pandemic, there’s been a kind of preference for providing families with vouchers over cash often rooted in quite paternalistic ideas about controlling what people are able to spend the money on. But you know, this, as well as being kind of patronising and simply not appreciative of the realities, it stops parents from being able to make the best choices and to make money go as far as it needs to. And then finally around addressing the cost of childhood, and we think it’s really important to increase access to affordable childcare. I think the second set of recommendations that we came up with are around addressing adequacy within the social security system, we’ve seen, you know, a long term erosion of the value of social security benefits, to the extent that as we argue in our report, you know, to call the system that we have a social security system is now really a bit of a misnomer. One of the things it doesn’t do is provide much security for people, but rather, it kind of maintains people in a very uncomfortable and difficult situation of insecurity. So forever, staving off total disaster, but definitely not providing anything like security for people. So we think that the social security system needs to be restored to something that is worthy of that name, to restore the £20 uplift to universal credit, and also extending it to all claimants. We also think there needs to be an end to the two child limit, which arbitrarily punishes children coming from larger families, and also to the benefit cap. Finally, lots and lots of our participants really struggle with debt deductions. So these are deductions made to their benefits by the social security system. And this is debt that they accrue while they’re waiting for their first payment. So those are a number of things that we think will begin to like address inadequacy in the benefit system, and also gaps around supporting parenting and childhood.

Niamh Kelly  26:34

The key step that needs to be taken is to have a national child poverty strategy, which we don’t have. And as part of that coming in underneath us, would be targets around one parent families, linking them to other areas, for example, we’ve no family homeless strategy in Ireland, either. So these are kind of core areas where lone parent families are really falling through the cracks. And, you know, we see that around 55 to 60% of all families in homelessness are one parent families. So it’s, it’s very clear, there’s a very strong link there. But without a strategy. And without formal plans in place with targets that are reported on on the have a bit of teeth behind the implementation of them, we’re not going to see any change, because what happens is, in general strategies, children are maybe an add on at the end, on one parent families are an add on after that, you know, it’s like they’re footnotes in the general plans. What we need is targeted plans, we need plans that identify the families that we know, and the children that we know are most risk and put in place measures to address them. So they include things like developing that child maintenance system, it’s about ensuring that families have free access to childcare, ensuring that there’s an education first approach to employment. So parents aren’t being pushed into low paid insecure jobs, that they’re actually being supported into education so they can make a better future for their family. So we know what works. But we need a strategy in place, we need something in place to guarantee that these families are supported. And it needs to be a whole of government approach that is backed by a strong oversight arm, whether that be the Department of Children, or another department that is overseeing this and is ensure that the reporting is done.

Catherine McDonald  28:19 

And Susan if I could bring you in again, how would you say that we could get lone parent families to a place where a crisis like COVID doesn’t have such a devastating and debilitating effect?

Susan Harkness  28:30 

Well, one of the things that I think was maybe a positive about policy under COVID, was this sort of rollout of furlough, and the fact that the replacement you could get if you weren’t working was much higher than it would have been under the sort of old benefit system. So I think in some ways, what that did was it provided greater insurance against job loss than under the sort of the benefit system as it was pre-COVID. And I think in many ways that the withdrawal of that is going to be particularly worrying, and particularly if, for example, some schools are closed, or COVID continues to be a problem. If furlough has gone, I think that’s going to be even more problematic. So I think there are things that maybe we can learn from the policies that were implemented over the period that maybe would be sort of positive, in terms of learning about how we might adapt our welfare system going forward. The comment of Stacey about uncertainty, again, really, really resonates. And I think this sort of inability of the welfare system to really sort of stabilise people’s incomes is something that I think we really need to be sort of thinking very seriously about it, but I don’t think it’s just money that matters. And again, I think the sort of policies around schools and how we think about which children, for example, were given access, or the type of support that was given I think, are also really important. And I think as we as we sort of go forward, we know that there have been effects from COVID. We’re getting increasing evidence of learning gaps, arising as a result of the COVID pandemic. So we know that many children are behind and those effects that we’re seeing are likely to be very unequal. We’ve also seen these problems of children missing from schools, high rates of absences. And again, I my expectation are these, these are going to look quite different for different groups of children from better off backgrounds and from those that are not as advantaged. So I think there are real problems that we need to be thinking about how we’re going to be dealing with these in the future. Another thing that I think is also important is thinking about how the toll that this pandemic has taken on people’s mental health. And we know that that’s been particularly tough for single parents. But I would be really concerned about as we sort of come out of the pandemic, hopefully, what effect that will have on people in the longer term, because we know that these effects can have long term implications for people’s wellbeing. And I think this is something we need to be really keeping an eye on both for parents and children. And we know that and then the case of single mothers that they’ve been particularly adversely affected.

Niamh Kelly  30:59 

Unfortunately, I would worry now with the next crises that we face into particularly around cost of living and the rise in inflation on goods and services, I would worry that those most vulnerable will fall down the pecking order again, I mean, we see already in Ireland, there was the government put in place some extraordinary measures in relation to fuel and they put in place some targeted messages, but they also gave everybody a rebate or a payment towards their fuel. And I mean, we were really shouting like this and saying, not everybody needs this. Not everybody needs the support, give the support to the people who are most in need, give it to the most vulnerable. So I suppose my fear and what we would really like to avoid is going back to similar approaches, there was during austerity times when really the most vulnerable in society suffered far greater disadvantage than than other people. And you know, that’s something that we don’t want to see repeated again.

Catherine McDonald  31:55 

My thanks to Professor Susan Harkness, Dr. Jim Kaufman, Niamh Kelly and Stacey. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcasts production. Thank you for listening, and remember to subscribe to receive all future episodes.

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