Shirley Hilairè’s journey of single-motherhood

Shirley is a single mother to her sons, ages 8 and 12. For the past eight years, she has been the sole provider for her family. “They have been my motivation and inspiration. Without them, I would not have the same drive to succeed,” she explains. Her family has faced many challenges, but she remains determined to face them head-on and maintain a positive outlook. Today, Shirley is passionate about helping others through the lessons she learned along her journey, which includes leaving an abusive relationship and being a single mother.

How did you become the sole provider of your children?

I fell in love when I was young. I was 16 and did not have the knowledge or experience to understand what a healthy relationship is. I got my first son at the age of 21, after which I started to slowly mature and realise: “This is not a good situation.” It took me 10 years to leave my abusive relationship, but I had to do what was best for my children. I moved back to Sint Maarten as a single parent.

“This is not a good situation.”

What are some challenges that are unique to being a single parent?

When you have a partner, you have someone to share the responsibility of childcare and the costs of your household expenses. I had to work two jobs to make ends meet. And to work, I needed to hire a babysitter who also cost money.

How did you meet those challenges?

There is no other choice but to push through and find a way. I learned that planning and budgeting are essential. I had to cut down on many things, including doing my hair or nails and going out to eat or partying. There is little room for those things when you need to support your children.   

What are some of the misconceptions people have about being a single mom? 

Locally, especially when a mother has multiple children, people say: “She put herself in that situation.” They don’t realise that there can be many reasons. When you start a relationship with someone, you see a future with them; you do not foresee your partner passing away, not wanting to take responsibility, leaving you with your children for someone else, being abusive, or other reasons that might have catapulted you into single motherhood.

“She put herself in that situation.”

Often people say it’s vital for a child to have both a father and mother in their life. What is your response to this? 

I would agree with this! It is important. My sons need to have upstanding male role models in their lives. When I left for Sint Maarten, my eldest son started acting out. After talking to the school counsellor, we realised he was missing his father. So, although he could not be with his father, I would let him spend time with male relatives on his father’s side of the family.

How do you explain to your sons that their father isn’t in their lives?

With open communication. If a parent can’t be there, it is essential to explain to your children why. Otherwise, this will lead to animosity between you and your children with questions such as “Why aren’t you allowing us to be with our dad?”. My parents did not communicate with me. They did not ta lk about topics such as healthy relationships and ‘the birds and the bees’ – which is part of why I ended up in a difficult situation. My boys can talk to me about anything, and this will prevent them from making the mistakes that I made.

“Why aren’t you allowing us to be with our dad?”

How can single mothers be better supported?

The government needs to provide much stronger support systems for single mothers. Mental health support comes to mind first. Many of the mothers I encounter do not feel that therapy or counselling is accessible to them. One idea is that help desks provide more on-site counselling. Also, I know mothers who experience varying degrees of abuse at home, and feel helpless, even after visiting the Police Department or the Court of Guardianship. It’s hard for mothers to choose to leave an abusive relationship. This is even harder without support from authorities or adequate financial support.

This also sounds like a child protection issue…

People will say: “Oh that mother is so rough with her child” without considering that she is likely unhappy and feels there is no way forward. I know a mom who did not send her child to school for a week. When I asked her why, she answered: “I am so ashamed. I have no food to give my child to bring to school.”

In cases where single mothers feel overwhelmed and frustrated and feel that they have no one to turn to, they can sometimes take this out on their children in a negative way. This can result in neglect and emotional or physical abuse can also happen to children. In cases of domestic abuse, the children might be abused as well or suffer trauma from witnessing the abuse of their mother.

This can result in neglect and emotional or physical abuse can also happen to children.

You sound like you are passionate about helping other single mothers…

I am. In 2016, I started volunteering with ‘Girl Power’ to help empower girls and women. Inspired by this program, I started a foundation called: Uplifting Moms. It is so important to have a safe space for single mothers to share their stories, create a network, and receive advice from others in similar situations. In addition to support groups, we host educational workshops such as budgeting.

Any last thoughts on this topic?

We mustn’t forget men and fathers when we look at the topic of single mothers. Yes, it is awful when the father of your child is irresponsible or violent. But we must also look at the root cause of this. We should also look for ways to support boys and men in our society to become better partners and fathers.