For more than a century, Cyprus’ rate of single mothers has been much higher than average. ALIX NORMAN discovers why the island is stigmatising its single mums
Thirty six per cent of Cyprus households contain kids. It’s one of the highest rates in the EU, well above the average of 24 per cent. But this number is falling: 10 years ago, three of every five homes on the island contained children. And things are getting quieter too: the statistics suggest exactly half of these households now have just one child, 40 per cent have two, and less than 10 per cent have three kids. A huge difference from years past, when people popped out progeny like there was no tomorrow!
Where we’re not changing, however, is our parental composition. This week, as the UN celebrated the Global Day of Parents on June 1, it’s worth taking a look at the real unsung heroes of the island. Single mums.
Cyprus definitely prefers the nuclear family. Like Greece and Romania, our island has an incredibly low rate of single parents. While single-parent families in Denmark, Lithuania and Latvia comprise over 20 per cent of all homes, in Cyprus under 10 per cent of all households consist of a single parent. And over 90 per cent of these are mums.
Granted, most single-parent families around the world are headed by mothers. But more than a quarter of all single parents in Spain, Sweden and the US are dads, in Cyprus, fewer than 1 in 10 single Cypriot parents is male – one of the lowest rates in the world.
“It’s a hangover from the past, I think,” says 41-year-old Limassolian Maria. “No matter how progressive we think we are on this island, it’s much easier for a man to remarry than it is for a woman. So the single fathers go off and find another wife while the single mums are left bearing the brunt of childcare; effectively shunned as potential partners.”
This strong opinion may contain a grain of truth. A study entitled Single Parenthood in Cyprus Past suggests that “in the past, single parenthood was almost exclusively related to widowhood. However, due to the low social position of women in bygone days, divorced women, and not men, were the ones to be stigmatised and marginalised.”
Citing an early British census, the study reveals that in the late 1800s the percentage of divorced women (4.9 per cent) was almost four times that of divorced men (1.3 per cent). That trend continues throughout the 20th century. “Following divorce,” say the study’s authors, “men were able to continue with a second marriage more easily than women. In the few cases where a couple ‘dared’ to divorce, the woman was blamed as proof that she was unable to keep her husband and maintain the coherence of the family unit.”
“Has this changed much even now?” asks 36-year-old Larnaca resident Valentina. “My ex-husband’s parents certainly blame me for the divorce. I wish they could see that I’m doing the best I can for my children; that I need their support, not their criticism. But it’s always been this way for Cypriot single mums.”
“The label ‘unmarried mother’ was like a curse which a woman carried with her to the grave,” says the Single Parenthood study, referring to views in the early 20th century. “In traditional society, the husband and father formed the anchor of his wife and children’s identities, hence, unmarried mothers and their children were deemed to be people without bearings, and children were referred to as ‘the bastards of x’ (name of the woman).”
Even in the 21st century, says the study, local values have been slow to change. Marriage is still seen as the goal; divorce as a failure – often on the part of the woman. As late as 2001, Cyprus had just 9,784 single-parent families: of these 8,846 were single mothers and 938 were single fathers. Cohabitant parents were, the study adds, “almost inexistent at just 0.3 per cent of the population.”
“From a social standpoint, Cyprus is not a great place to be a single mum,” says 42-year-old Irene from Nicosia. “People, especially the older generations, still seem to think you have ‘failed’ if you haven’t ‘hung on to your husband’. But for me, single parenthood has been a godsend! When I was married, I did all the cleaning, cooking, childcare and budgeting, along with my full-time job. No matter how delicately I tried to get my ex involved, he shunned responsibility; it was like having three children rather than two.”
Divorced for a year, Irene is now revelling in her newfound freedom. “I have weekends to myself for the first time in a decade! The kids live with me during the week, but stay with my ex at weekends. Finally, he’s having to learn what it is to take care of children!”
While the number of children per household is rapidly falling across the island, Cyprus still maintains one of the highest rates compared with other EU nations, along with a more traditional view of what a family should be.
“I’m pretty sure my ex-husband will find a willing wife sooner or later,” says 38-year-old Paphos resident Niki. “He makes good money, he owns a flat, he’s socially respected. Meanwhile, my potential partners seem to disappear fairly quickly when they discover two young kids are part of the package!
“I know at least two single friends who wish to adopt,” she adds. “I support their decision. But I also want to make them aware of how Cypriot society views single mums. I dread to think what same-sex partners who have or wish to have children must go through on this island. If you’re not a traditional nuclear family consisting of a married male and female, society too easily condemns you – and your children…
“My own kids have been bullied for not having two parents. I know they’re actually much happier now we’ve split. But when even other kids are stigmatising them for not having two married, co-habiting parents, what does that say about the way Cyprus views its non-nuclear families? Especially its single mums.”