Mackay, Neil. "Sarah Brown and JK Rowling: why we want you to help single parents: Chancellor's wife and Harry Potter writer reveal reasons they back charity." Sunday Herald 26 May 2002

Editor's note: The Rowling quotes in this article were taken from the foreword to the book "Magic" and not a live interview. Read the original source.

It is billed as a book to put sparkle in your life, but at its heart lie painful truths from the lives of two of Scotland 's most acclaimed women the death of a first-born child and the grinding existence of life on benefits.

Sarah Brown , wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a successful public relations consultant, and JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, have collaborated to compile Magic, a collection of short stories by some of Britain's best authors, to raise £1 million for the National Council for One-Parent Families. In their foreword and introduction, given exclusively to the Sunday Herald, they share the tragedies and struggles they faced as young mothers.

Sarah Brown tells how she marvels at the abilities of single mothers and fathers coping with raising children alone as she reflects on the death of her daughter Jennifer, who died earlier this year soon after birth. In her introduction, she says: Through our experiences as parents in caring for our daughter Jennifer in her short life, Gordon and I needed each other's love and support.

I can't imagine how hard it would have been without Gordon there with me. I take my hat off to all parents raising their children on their own they are all remarkable. I remember the time my mother was raising my two brothers and me on her own. We enjoy the strongest of family bonds today with both our parents and our step-parents, but it was a tough period for us as we faced the task of rebuilding our own future.

JK Rowling, patron of the National Council for One-Parent Families, describes in the foreword of her own life as a single parent, which began in 1993 when her marriage ended and she moved to Edinburgh with her baby daughter. She also talks of her anger at the stigmatisation of single mothers by some politicians and sections of the media.

Leaving my ex-husband meant leaving my job and returning to Britain with two suitcases of possessions. I knew perfectly well that I was walking into poverty, but I believed that it would be only a matter of months before I was back on my feet.

I had enough money to put down a deposit on a rented flat and buy a high chair and a cot. When my savings were gone, I settled down to life on less than £70 a week. Poverty is a lot like childbirth — you know it's going to hurt before it happens, but you'll never know how much until you've experienced it. Some newspaper articles have come close to romanticising the time I spent on income support because the well-worn cliché of the writer starving in the garret is so much more picturesque than the bitter reality of living in poverty with a child.

The endless little humiliations of life on benefits and let us remember that six out of 10 families headed by a lone parent live in poverty receive very little media coverage unless they are followed by what seems to be, in newsprint at least, a swift and Cinderella-like reversal of fortune. I remember reaching the checkout, counting out the money in coppers, finding I was 2p short of a tin of beans and feeling I had to pretend I had mislaid a £10 note .

Similarly unappreciated acting skills were required for my forays into Mothercare, where I would pretend to be examining clothes I could not afford for my daughter while edging ever closer to the baby-changing room, where they offered a small supply of free nappies.

I hated dressing my longed-for child from charity shops; I hated relying on the kindness of relatives when it came to her new shoes; I tried furiously hard not to feel jealous of other children's beautifully decorated, well-stocked bedrooms when we went to friends' houses to play. I wanted to work part-time. When I asked my health visitor about the possibility of a couple of afternoons' state childcare a week she explained, very kindly, that places for babies were reserved for those who were deemed at risk. Her exact words were 'You're coping too well'.

I was allowed to earn £15 a week before my income support and housing benefit were docked. Full-time private childcare was so exorbitant that I would need to find a full-time job paying well above the national average. I had to decide whether my baby would rather be handed over to somebody else for most of her waking hours or be cared for by her mother in far from luxurious surroundings. I chose the latter, though constantly feeling I had to justify my choice at length whenever anybody asked me that nasty question So what do you do?'.

The honest answer to that question was: I worry continually, I devote hours to writing a book I doubt will ever be published, I try hard to hold on to the hope that our situation will improve, and when I am not too exhausted to feel strong emotion I am swamped with anger at the portrayals of single mothers by certain politicians and newspapers as feckless teenagers in search of that holy grail, the council flat, when 97% of us have long since left our teens.

Rowling says the subtext of the vilification is couples make better parents. Yet during my time as a secondary school teacher, she writes, I met a number of disruptive, damaged children whose homes contained two parents. On the issue of a marriage being the best environment in which to raise children, she says: I have never felt the remotest shame about being a single parent. I have the temerity to be rather proud of the period when I did three jobs (the unpaid work of two parents and the salaried job of a teacher — for I did eventually manage to take my postgraduate certificate in education due to the generosity of a friend who lent me money for childcare).

I t is not single parenthood but poverty that causes some children to do less well than others. When you take poverty out of the equation, children from one- parent families can do just as well as children from couple families.

Of her family's escape from poverty she says: I am fully aware, every single day, of how lucky I am; lucky because I do not have to worry about my daughter's financial security any more, because what used to be benefit day comes around and there's still food in the fridge and the bills are paid. But I had a talent I could exercise without financial outlay. Anyone thinking of using me as an example of how single parents can break out of the poverty trap might as well point at Oprah Winfrey and declare that there is no more racism in America .

People just like me are facing the same obstacles to the full realisation of their potential every day and their children are missing opportunities alongside them. They are not asking for handouts, they are not scheming for council flats, they are simply asking for the help they need to break free of life on benefits and support their own children.

That, says Rowling, is why she put her money where [her] mouth had been since I experienced the reality of single-parenthood in Britain and became the patron of the National Council for One-Parent Families.

Magic, which contains stories by writers including Christopher Brookmyre, Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon and Ben Okri, is published by Bloomsbury and goes on sale on June 13 at £6.99. Sarah Brown and a number of the writers will be at Ottakar's Bookshop on Buchanan Street in Glasgow this Tuesday at 7pm for the official launch.

Source: Master Froggy

Original page date 2 March 2007; last updated 2 March 2007.