ONCE upon a time, I had a fictional husband. He was whip-smart, devilishly handsome and worked away a lot. This ersatz partner existed for one reason only: running interference between me and any stranger who assumed I was a lone parent.

It’s funny how even the suggestion of a partner, however absent or fictitious, changed the adjectives that flew in my direction. Instead of being feckless and irresponsible, I was brave and patient. Knowing there was some amorphous man in this picture acted as an antacid for any reflexive bile.

During this period of wounded self-esteem and relative youth, it was easier to go with their presumption of a father and a “complete” family unit than it was to embrace my singledom and assert my own family’s value. Then, I didn’t have the vocabulary and the confidence that comes with years of experience flying solo to challenge any of the usual remarks. It was easier to keep wearing that little band of metal and repel any intrusive questions than it was to admit that I didn’t have a husband and that I was parenting these kids alone. This is one of the reasons I kept my married name long after my divorce. These were all strategies to deflect inquiry that might single my family out as lesser.

I did this because to be a young single mum is to battle with the daily stigma that shapes your interactions in the world. It shaped everything from the throwaway comments I’d encounter whilst shopping, to whether we could find somewhere to live.

According to figures from One Parent Families Scotland, one in four families is headed by a lone parent. It is far from being an outsider status, and yet the negative stereotypes endure.

I was raised in a single-parent family. I can’t say whether it impacted me more than my parent’s unhealthy marriage would have, because it’s all I’ve ever known since my dad died – but I have my suspicions. There are also things that I could have only learned in this environment – mostly about the skills, talents and capabilities of a determined single woman. What I can do is speak out in defence of these entirely normal family units and the many things I gained from being raised outside of the socially acceptable norm.

I did not think of her as a single mum, and neither did I think that I was in any way disadvantaged – she just “was”. My mother did not flounder when my father passed away, she did not need any man to fill in the gaps left by my father’s absence. She was and is astoundingly capable, doing things other kids’ dads did and not batting an eye.

If she needed to fit a shower, she did it. If she needed to put an aerial on the roof, she did it. If something broke and she couldn’t afford someone to fix it, she figured it out and she did it. This meant my sisters and I were raised in an environment where our self-perception was not constrained by expectations of gender.

On the surface my mother remained flinty and stoic in the face of being widowed, even though it had broken her emotionally, working every hour she could to make sure that her daughters had not just a roof over their heads and meals on the table, but the same chances and opportunities as their classmates despite our home situation. She was like a spider: diligent, resourceful and repairing any loose threads to keep it all together.

Having my own single-parent role model to look up to was a lifeline for me when I found myself facing a similar situation. Honestly? My mother was and is a badass. If I had not encountered that alternative image of a single mother, and only had the stereotype to look to, I am not sure I would have been able to face my new situation without crumbling.

The fact that single-parent families are still so stigmatised speaks volumes about how little society’s idea of what a family can and should be has evolved over the years. Given that the majority of lone-parent families are headed by a woman, and that this is common knowledge, it speaks to the double discrimination women face.

When a couple separate men are expected to financially provide for their children, and that’s about it. Women are expected to do everything else.

Women are expected to be the caregivers, to sacrifice everything – their independence, power, economic security – to raise their children while at the same time they are looked down upon for having to do all of these things at once. Still, the safety nets and social attitudes do not exist to make participation in the workforce viable for many single mothers, even though 59% of single parents work and the majority of the rest of them desperately want to.

I’ve been around families where couples stayed married for the sake of their children but at the cost of being able to parent effectively. I for one am glad that I can focus on parenting apart with my ex, without having to worry about sustaining a romantic relationship. We can both put our energy into what needs to be done to raise our children correctly.

Until we stop moralising about single parents, and start seeing them as more than a scourge on society, we will continue to perpetuate his outdated and impoverished idea of what a family should and could be. Our imaginations will remain stunted, and children will continue to suffer as a result of that stigma.

Perhaps if we embraced reality, we could see what children stand to gain from growing up in a household headed by one extraordinary person. When a child looks up to one caregiver for everything – their emotional support, the stability of their environment, paying the bills – they come to appreciate you as a whole person.

They might learn resilience as they watch a parent struggle and triumph. They could learn pragmatism and resourcefulness. They might learn to appreciate the value of money. In turn, they may come to appreciate how difficult parenting is, and be kinder on their future partners. There’s likely much that children of single parents gain, but this goes unnoticed because of our prejudices.

It’s time to let go of the fiction that dysfunctional families have a particular shape and that the best family has two adults at the helm.