My grandmother, my Dad’s Mum, was a single mother. Unbeknownst to my grandmother at the time of their marriage, my Dad’s father already had a family. He already had a wife and four children. He lied, and he and my grandmother got married. My father was born. The detail died with my grandmother in 1997, but I can only imagine how difficult the realisation of the truth and the subsequent divorce must have been in the 1950s and when my father was under two.
My memories of my grandmother are of a very difficult woman. By the time I knew her she was hard. She had very little warmth. She wasn’t fun-loving or easy-going. She was demanding and often jealous (of my Mum and of my other grandmother). I think she struggled with my parents’ relationship; my mother had ‘taken her son away from her’. My mother hadn’t. In fact my mother made a real effort and fought for us to see our grandmother often.
I always believed that my grandmother had led a difficult and sad life. She gave the impression that she hadn’t achieved all she wanted to achieve. Life had been a challenge and she resented and regretted it. I also felt that she deliberately wallowed in this resentment. Life had dealt her a cruel card and that is just the way it was.
I thought about my grandmother a lot a few months ago when I first became a single mother, when I made the decision to leave my loveless relationship. My overwhelming thought was that I didn’t want to turn into my grandmother. I don’t want to resent my life. I don’t want the future partner of my son or his children, my future grandchildren, to find me hard, demanding or jealous. I don’t want single parenthood to turn me into the lonely, regretful woman that my grandmother was when she died.
I now feel guilty for thinking these thoughts. The more I read about single mothers and particularly about single mothers in the 1950s and 1960s, the more I realise that my grandmother was a fantastic and strong woman who deserves recognition and respect. Here’s why:
1. She shunned societal disapproval: In the 1950s and 1960s raising a child without a father was a humiliating ordeal. This was the era when Mother and Baby Homes still took in women who had ‘fallen’. In 1968 there were 172 homes for unmarried mothers who had ‘fallen’ pregnant. These women were strongly encouraged to put their children up for adoption, such was the belief that children who weren’t part of a family with a mother and father in wedlock, ‘till death do us part’, would fail in society and would cause the failure of future society.
My father remembers some of the pressure. He remembers the children in the playground calling him a ‘bastard’. Imagine what must have been said in whispers about my grandmother, a single mother in the 1950s, imagine the disapproval. But worse, imagine the pain, struggle and guilt that my grandmother must have faced knowing that children at school were calling her son a ‘bastard’. No wonder she was hard and strong.
2. She worked full-time and received no support, financial or otherwise, from my Dad’s father: My grandmother worked full time as a chemist in a paint factory. When my Dad got home from school he used to go round to the neighbour’s house for his tea and to wait for my grandmother to get home.
My grandmother received no financial support from my Dad’s father. In fact, all that my Dad ever heard from his father was a few letters, detailing complex structural designs for bridges. My Dad’s father was too clever for his own good.
3. She had no support from her family: My grandmother’s family fled Germany in 1939, just before the outbreak of war. My grandmother’s father had spoken out about the treatment of the Jews and died soon after (cause unknown). There was Jewish blood in the family. Germany was not safe. My grandmother’s mother later remarried and moved to Israel, her brother fled to Sweden, she fell out with her sister who had also come to the UK. She was totally alone and had no family to rely on, no family to cook her son dinner before she got home from work, no family to help her parent her son. My father still says that until he was 14 his mother was the perfect mother. She spent quality time with him when they were together. She explained things to him. She taught him about history and science. She took him to museums. She was everything a mother and a father should and could be.
I no longer fear turning into my grandmother, in fact I would be proud to. In her prime, she was a fantastic and strong woman. I only hope that when I grow old I can recognise what I have achieved, be proud of myself and have no regrets or resentment.
Life deals us all difficult cards on occasion. We are defined by how we play them.