What are the first 3 letters of assumption? Exactly…

I started off this blog with the idea of going through all the things people assume of single mums, but I got half way through and realised it’s all just assumptions based on stereotypes and isn’t restricted to single mums at all, it’s a much wider problem than that.

So I hit delete and started again, which is what people should do with stereotypes to be honest. We none of us like being labelled, we know we don’t fit into nice neat boxes and we hate it when people make incorrect assumptions about us; yet we still do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I could rant for quite a while about some things that people assume about single mothers, it’s outrageous and can be very offensive, and I’ve not heard an assumption that’s true of me (or any single parent I know) yet.

Here’s a quick list of my favourites:

  • Apparently we’re all struggling and on benefits
    • The benefits system is there for a reason and many people need it to survive, but there are just as many couples with and without children and single people without children who have to rely on benefits, it’s not a problem confined to single mothers by a very long shot.
  • According to some rather disrespectful websites I’ve seen we all want to find another father figure for our child/ren so therefore all men should avoid us as they’ll get trapped.
    • How stupid is this assumption? It’s utterly ridiculous. L has a father, she doesn’t need another. Sure it would be brilliant for her to get on well with anyone I get involved with, in fact for a long term partner it would be a requirement, but as a friend and someone to care about her, she’s covered on the parent front and has a great relationship with her dad. End of daft discussion.
  • Apparently single mums got pregnant by accident because we slept around.
    • Again, a really stupid, and very offensive, assumption. There are lots of reasons why someone might be a single parent: for example their relationship could have broken down, their partner or relative could have died, they may have been raped, or they may have used a sperm donor and decided to do it alone. There’s a myriad of reasons, just like there are a myriad of single mums. To assume it’s because of the least common and most offensive reason is pure prejudice.
  • And lastly, this is probably my favourite to be honest, apparently we single parents are stupid.
    • Well, nothing says stupid like having a PhD does it! Honestly, this one is too crazy to comment on without being incredibly sarcastic. I know plenty of single mums or women who used to be single mums, not a stupid one among them, in fact we could probably run mental circles around any idiot who spouts this ridiculous assumption.

What all these assumptions have in common is other people trying to pigeon hole us into nice neat categories – this is called stereotyping and it’s bonkers. Stereotypes are assumptions based on bits of information and some really poor processing of probability (which isn’t our fault, we’re actually all pretty rubbish at estimating the probability of events).

We stereotype because humans are fundamentally lazy creatures, we can’t be bothered to do the thinking required to evaluate each person on their own individual merits, that’s a lot of processing power and our brains are busy doing a lot of things all the time, so we have evolved a brain which allows us to create shortcuts in our evaluation of situations, and then rely on these shortcuts to influence our decisions. It speeds up the whole process of getting things done. It’s known as heuristics – we create cognitive shortcuts to speed up our thinking and free up mental processing for other things (like what happened on the last episode of 24 we watched, what we need to do at work or what we fancy having for tea).

So we make assumptions about the attributes of groups of people based on limited experience and information from elsewhere (the tabloid press has a lot to answer for). We combine these attributes into, essentially, a group profile, known as a schema, which we subsequently apply to anyone fitting the criteria for that group: for example that single mum is on benefits and struggling, therefore all single mums must be on benefits and struggling.

horse and cat

Creatures with 4 legs and a tail – of course they’re not the same, just like not all people are the same.

These mental shortcuts can lead to some pretty ridiculous assumptions. For example: all horses have 4 legs and a tail. There is a creature sitting on my lap and purring which has 4 legs and a tail so therefore it must be a horse. This is how ridiculous heuristics can be – in the absence of knowledge we rely on our schemas to make decisions for us which leads to people being given labels they shouldn’t be given.

trojan cat

Appearances can be deceptive.

One assumption that both myself and my female friends with PhDs have been subjected to is the ingrained assumption that is still present, at least by some, that all those with the title Dr are men. I kid you not, people assume that because we’re Dr we are therefore male. I’ve booked a plane ticket in the past, only to be asked if Mr ***** could confirm his purchase, I was rather flummoxed by that prior to being thoroughly outraged.  That was 10 years ago and it’s not improved much. Earlier this year a friend joined a gym and couldn’t get into the changing rooms as her access fob wouldn’t work.  It got reprogrammed several times before staff realised she’d been automatically granted access to the male changing rooms instead of the female changing rooms – the system had assumed that since she registered as a Dr then she must be male. An incorrect plan ticket is one thing but that’s completely ridiculous.

Things are starting to change, but it’s so very slow. Anyone who’s suffered any form of prejudice will know how slow. I’ve described some relatively minor stereotyping here, but we all know there is far more major stereotyping going on in our society.

Heuristics influencing the treatment of others is ingrained in our evolution and our society; it’s only through education and continual displaying of contradicting examples that stereotypes will change. We need to work with evolution and our brains and replace the negative stereotypes with more positive mental shortcuts. We’re getting there; Ireland’s recent vote in favour of gay marriage shows how far things have come recently in that area. But look at the success of UKIP at the last election; their policies are genuinely frightening for anyone in favour of equality yet they hoodwinked vast swathes of the populace with their bluster and anti-government rhetoric, somehow managing to get votes even when a major UKIP donors publically commented (and reported in The Telegraph, in case you thought I got this gem from the tabloid press) that single mothers ‘need a smack’. I wish I was kidding.

I’ll get off my soap box for now. Suffice to say that the misunderstandings and stereotyping of single mums is the result of people making assumptions based on limited information, using heuristics to influence their decisions instead of evidence right in front of them. Single parents do just as good a job as couples do, and there is no reason for discrimination of any variety in our society. It is only by providing high profile evidence to the contrary in the popular press and media that those stereotypes will start to dissipate and vanish.

I don’t conform to any of the stereotypes about single mums, in fact I don’t conform to any stereotypes full stop; I might be a cake-baking vegetarian, but I also fix my own computer and successfully do all my own DIY. Assumptions with most people do not work, even if you assume correctly you’re likely to irritate them, best not to in the first place.



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