Episode 1 – Karen Adam MSP

Last updated: 11/05/2022

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Karen spoke with us on her experience of being a single parent and the importance of having a Scottish Parliament that is representative of the Scottish population. Also, hear Karen speak about Challenge Poverty Week and thoughts on flexible working and having access to affordable childcare.

You can contribute your experiences of being a single parent to future podcasts by leaving a voice message here.

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It's really important to educate people, that single parents work extremely hard, because you're doing you know, double the job. And it is exhausting, but you're not just doing double the job at home you're having to do that job out the home, in the home, and there's not a lot of sleep or rest time that comes in there.

- Karen Adam, MSP

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Podcast transcript

Tariq Ali, OPFS 0:00
Hello, and welcome to the first OPFS podcast, which features Kevin Adams MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Karen Adams MSP 0:11
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 0:14
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Karen, and your experience of being a single parent?

Karen Adams MSP 0:20
Yes, absolutely. So I was a single parent to six children of various ages. My marriage broke up, and it ended and I found myself on my own with five children still at home, one had left home at that point, she was of that age, she’s now married, with two children, so but I was still at home with five sons, which it was quite a bit of a shock, really, at that time, and quite hard to see what was in my future. And it’s quite a scary time as well to be left with all that responsibility on my own. You do anything, everything from finances, to juggling homework, to, you know, all the everyday physical aspects, of looking after five children, but also the mental load. So I’ve been looking after those five boys on my own since 2013. Yeah, so what’s that seven years now? Yeah.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 1:25
What was or is the most positive aspect of being a single parent for you?

Karen Adams MSP 1:30
I think a really positive aspect for me was being able to well, at that time, you know, what was think what’s a silver lining that’s came from this, and it was re-evaluating my life, and what I could bring to the table, not just, you know, as a person on my own in regards to parenting, but also me as a person, what am I going to do now for work, for a job for any sort of career. So I suppose a silver lining there was that I was able to reassess my own life as an individual. And not, you know, part of a couple, because I knew at that point, I was so very grateful for the welfare system. Because I wasn’t working, I did a lot of volunteer work and some charity work. I’ve never done paid work. Well, any type of career, I had done odd jobs in the past, you know, and over the years to get some extra money in, but I’d never had that real focus on what I actually wanted to do there and I needed some steady stream of income. So a silver lining from that was I got quite active in politics. And I also signed up to do a politics, economics and philosophy degree with the Open University. So it kind of set me on a footing enough a bit of purpose for me as an individual.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 2:55
Do you feel that there’s still a stigma against single parents? And if so, how can we challenge these unfair criticisms against them?

Karen Adams MSP 3:04
I think there is. And I’ll tell you why I think there is it’s because when I automatically became a single parent, I didn’t tell people straight away. It took a while for me to admit that my marriage had broken down, and I was on my own with the children. And when I became, you know, an activist, and I was out seeing a lot more people, it was something that I kept quite guarded. Because I felt that if I said, you know, I’m a single parent of six, that I felt there’d be immediate judgments made against me. So although it’s perhaps something that’s not immediately in your face, you know, it’s still there. You know, there’s still stigma there, you see it in media and on TV programmes all the time. And I think that really does need to change because there’s this. I remember, actually, I was in a meeting, and I won’t give every.. anything away so people can identify this person or the meeting. But somebody was complaining that there might be more what if we have a single parent with six children move into the neighbourhood? So I turned round in the meeting, I was an elected councillor at that time. And I said, I’m a single parent with six children. And then they said, no, no, no, not not not a single parent like you. I thought, no, well, what do you mean then? If not like me? Because that’s who we are. You know, that’s who single parents are. So I know that there is still that discrimination and judgement towards single parents. But I think a lot of the time it is few and far between. And it’s really important to educate people, that single parents work extremely hard, because you’re doing you know, double the job. And it is exhausting, but you’re not just doing double the job at home you’re having to do that job out the home, in the home, and there’s not a lot of sleep or rest time that comes in there. So it’s really trying to change the idea of what a single parent is and remove that stigma. Because single parents are extremely hard working in terms of the mental load in itself, that it puts upon a person.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 5:24
Was being a single parent a motivating factor in becoming an MSP?

Karen Adams MSP 5:28

That kind of came afterwards, I was obviously I was caught up in this situation of, you know, a marriage breakdown, it’s, you know, it’s a difficult thing within itself and navigating that, and everything, you know, that comes with that, but also navigating life, you know, as a single person, as well, at that time. And juggling, you know, time management was extremely important and to be extremely organised with my time and prioritising things too that was quite, that was quite difficult. As time went on, when I was studying politics as well, you know, it was, feminism was part of that. And, you know, realising that, you know, we have all different, you know, genders within single or single parent family and community, but reading about the.. how it disproportionately affects women. And you know, that it brought that feminism aspect into it when I was studying politics. And it really highlighted that, to me, that the imbalance of care, unpaid care, and all these things were, what I was experiencing was quite a political thing as well. So that was something that I was able to bring forward at meetings, not just focusing on one aspect of politics, I was really interested in that bringing my lived experience into it as well, because it really wasn’t easy. Finding, you know, that that time management.. my children when they were younger, you know, I used to be able to take them, when I was getting them ready for school because I was a stay at home mother for most of that time, I could fit in the charity and volunteer work. And I was also an interpreter for my dad, looking after him because he’s deaf. So I had commitments and appointments to attend with him as well. So it was just trying to organise all this, together, with this in this unpaid role was quite difficult to navigate. But in the beginning, my children, they would always have ironed school uniforms, you know, every morning, and breakfast on the table. And dinner was freshly cooked and made, you know, at dinner time. And it kind of went from that, to grabbing items of clothing out of washing baskets, you know, quickly to put them on there to get them dressed for school in the morning, because I had these, all these other commitments now that I couldn’t pass off to somebody else in the home. So you know, my life did change in that regard. But I also realised that it wasn’t that important that they had these fully ironed clothes to get to school in the morning. And it really did reassess those priorities for me, and to see what was important. And it was more important for them, and my children to see somebody that was being able to manage the home, and somebody that was taking charge, you know, of their life and having an interest. And it’s actually benefited us really, my children are, you know, they’re very independent, they’ve learned how to cook because they’ve had to cook because they got sick of chicken nuggets and chips or a chipper been brought in last minute and put on the table because I hadn’t been doing that cooking that I had plenty of time for, you know, in the past. So they’ve had to develop and change as well and take on more responsibility. So although it’s been very hard, noting all these changes within our family, it’s also been quite positive in many aspects.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 9:00
Did your children take inspiration from seeing how you are handling the situation?

Karen Adams MSP 9:06
I think so. And, they’re my oldest son, who’s you know, the oldest children house at that time. I have my daughter as well and she was very supportive. And you know, she’s been fantastic as well. But within the home so he will be cooking meals, you know, for his younger brothers helping care for his brother, because I have children who are neurodiverse and have additional support needs. So he’s actually a cater for his younger sibling to allow me to do other things so I can support the home and it’s not a traditional family setup as people would see it. He calls himself a stay-at-home brother because he does a lot of the childcare. You know, he washes the school uniforms now he makes the meals and actually you know if I’m tired he is a very loving boy you know, he will make me a home cooked meal and bring it to me. You know he won’t even call me to the table for this everybody else gets called to the table. So I, you know, I can’t say, you know, this is because it’s a single parent family. But I’ll say that’s one aspect that’s happened because of my single parent family and our family, that he has had this opportunity to learn within himself as well, and have some, you know, purpose within the family home. So it’s been, it’s been great in a lot of ways.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 10:26
How important is it to have a strong support network to fall back on, when it’s required?

Karen Adams MSP 10:32
Yeah, absolutely. As my children have gotten older, you know, I’ve got my daughter, and I do you have people have been really supportive. And, you know, I’ve had some great support at times, but you know, everybody else has their own lives, too. So it’s hard to have that complete reliance on your support network as well. So even if you do have some support it is quite difficult, I think sometimes, asking for that help. Because part of being a single parent is you want people to see that you are coping, and you’re managing. So reaching out for help in itself is quite a hard thing to do. So you end up bearing in quite a heavy burden yourself, without asking for that support. Because you feel like I’m always asking for help. Can you you pick the children up because I have to do this? Or can you help, you know, babysit this one night or something? And you just think, you know, you just don’t want to ask somebody one time too many. Whereas I’m sure the support network doesn’t actually feel or think that way they’ve said to me, you know, they don’t. But part of I think, you know, within this, we just don’t want to ask for too much help and be a burden on other people.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 11:42
Is it important for elected officials to know what services are available for single parents?

Karen Adams MSP 11:49
Absolutely. I mean, that’s really important and even knowing, what services are there. Because, you know, I’ve had that conversation, in summer recess with your your colleague, and it was quite eye-opening to see what services were there because even with, with myself, I didn’t know that personally some of them. So I think it’s important, particularly in elected positions, as well, ensuring that that information is out there that people can you know, access it, I think it’s extremely important.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 12:21
Why is it important to have single parents and people with diverse lived experiences being represented in the Scottish Parliament?

Karen Adams MSP 12:30
Well, I believe that the Scottish Parliament should be a reflection of Scotland, and of the people that live there and work there and raise families they’re here. So I think that’s really important that all voices are heard. Because if we have people in the decision making tables that, and I’m not saying that, you know, perhaps sometimes decisions are made, because they just don’t take certain things into account, because they’re not aware. It’s not that they’re purposely excluding certain people, or there could be consequences to certain policies, etc, that they’re maybe just not aware of. So it’s important to have as many diverse people as possible making those decisions, so that that lived experience can, you know, be discussed and that policy can be built on from that. Because it’s the people with the lived experience that know better than anybody else.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 13:22
This podcast is being recorded during child poverty week, in order to alleviate poverty Karen, what areas do you think the Scottish Government should focus on to try and make the lives of single parent families easier?

Karen Adams MSP 13:35
I think, firstly, being aware, is really important of the, of the lived experience of people living in poverty. And we all know that poverty isn’t just something that people go in and stay in. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride. There’s, you know, relative poverty, and, you know, so many different factors that come into that, that I think we really need to address because one month, you can maybe be able to pay your bills, and then the next month, you can’t. So looking at policy where there’s maybe top up benefits or extra support, and including ways that we can maybe buffer the effects on those people that are also dipping in and out of poverty, you know, and as we know, you know, most people were claiming Universal Credit are actually working, it’s the working poor, as well and single parents that are affected by that. So I think acknowledging that, you know, that as the wider aspect of poverty and how it actually affects people and their lives is really important. I think the child care, you know, the rollout of the 1140 hours is fantastic. It’s a huge help to a lot of single parents. And I think that’s a massive major step, a major win, you know, in that fight for equality, as well as lifting people out of poverty. I think it’s also great for people’s mental health. We know that, you know, also single parents are disproportionately affected by mental health issues as well. So I think, you know, that encompasses a whole different, you know, genre of issues, you know, we’ve got health, poverty, inequalities, all these different aspects come into it. So it’s looking really, I don’t think there’s just one channel or one line that we can go down. I think it’s really important that when we look at policy, across all areas that you always have, in the forefront of our mind when we’re making decisions, how is this gonna impact people, you know, from certain demographics? I think that’s going to be really important. And I think also, this kind of ties into the previous question as well, you know, what can we be doing, you know, in Parliament, and being a parliamentarian, and bringing that lived experience here, I think we also have to be an example here within the parliament, and within our own working practices, and how we can be, you know, more flexible as employers. As an MSP I’m an employer, myself and what I tried to do when I was employing people was make posts that were quite flexible. That was really important to me, particularly for people who had caring duties. And what I found was that the when I advertised for the full time position, set hours, I had a lot less people going for that position than I did for the two flexi part-time, hours positions. And the breadth of talent and diversity that came forward for those positions benefited me as an employer, because the talent pool was just incredible. And I had so many applications for that. So that within itself showed me that we need to go more towards, you know, a more flexi kind of we are working for people. So within Parliament as well, we need to think how can we work if we want people here from diverse backgrounds and carers here, unpaid carers and single parents, it needs to be a working environment in a place that welcomes people here and supports that. Because we need to be making those decisions and that knock-on effect, you know, particularly spreads throughout Scotland if we’re making the decisions here as well.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 17:38
Okay, with the onset of the pandemic, flexible working patterns have become more common. How important is this for single parents and workers in general?

Karen Adams MSP 17:54
Flexible hours is great, because it’s something I would have loved before when I first became a single parent as well, because fitting times when you have the hardest time I find isn’t when they’re all you know, at school and at school drop-off and pickup. It’s if you have one at school and one at nursery, it’s like how do you fit in time to do anything else, it’s so difficult because you’re just dropping them off at the morning, you’re back at lunchtime to pick one up and you’re back again to pick one up at the end and your days gone really. But so some people may want to be working, but they’re thinking how can I fit it around, you know, doing doing this care. So being able just to do an hour or two, you know, whenever you can, within a day makes a huge difference to people. And if they do have support or weekend or you know, perhaps maybe a co-parent or you know somebody takes a child and you can maybe fit something in flexibly then and not just be nine to five Monday to Friday. So I think flexi working is a fantastic way forward for for helping single parents.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 18:58
Single parents raise the problems with accessing like affordable and flexible childcare. How do you feel about this?

Karen Adams MSP 19:08
That’s something that we’re looking at as well because, you know, we’ve started off, you know, introducing the 1140 hours childcare. But what’s been flagged and highlighted as extremely important is the wrap-around childcare, because that’s where, you know, a lot of issues are because it’s not just dropping children off and picking them up at school. So it’s, I think, also it’s the responsibility of employers to ensure they’re often flexi positions or working around those hours, but also when it comes to providing childcare that will make sure that it is flexible and wrap-around for people who aren’t working that nine to five hours that need to be there for their children. So I think it’s a whole, you know, culture of change that’s needed, you know, across the board, you know, within the private sector as well as the public sector and government policy.

Tariq Ali, OPFS 20:04
Thank you so much for your time today Karen there’s so many single parents out there that will be really interested to hear about what you’ve said and all about your experiences.

Karen Adams MSP 20:14
Thank you for having me.