Our community can do much more to support single mothers, from providing flexible jobs, to challenging stigmas, improving financial support, and simply honouring the great job they do raising their families, JENNY DAVIDSON says.
Single mothers juggle many roles to provide and care for their children, often while struggling with complex issues. Facing these challenges, many single mothers are highly resilient, however others fall through the cracks. Communities can foster resilience by providing a range of supports; for single mother families this includes supportive government policies, flexible employment and community support.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children Victoria (CSMC) interacts with more than 2000 single mothers each year. Women who call our support line, access our website and otherwise engage with us are grappling with an intersecting range of issues, most frequently including financial hardship and the related issues of housing affordability, lack of flexible and secure work, unaffordable or inaccessible childcare, the rising costs of public education, and the impacts of health, mental health and caring responsibilities. More than half our callers are also dealing with the ongoing repercussions of family violence, including financial abuse.
The latest HILDA Surveyi reports 18.5 per cent of lone-parent families were in poverty in 2012, and 15.4 per cent have been living below the poverty line for five years. This is hardly surprising, as the most reliable and secure income for almost two thirds of single mothers who are primary carers is government benefits, bolstered with paid employment when possible. Most benefits have not seen any real increase for more than 20 years. More than half of all people who receive Newstart and Parenting Payments live below the poverty line. Unpaid child support also has a huge impact on single mothers and their children.
So, what can be done locally to help single mothers and their children build resilience and connect fully with their community? Creating flexible, supportive employment opportunities is a great starting place. Single mothers want jobs that enable them to still look after their children, such as school hours jobs and job share positions; and accessible and affordable childcare. Working locally also helps families connect with their community.
Single mothers should be honoured in our community for the unpaid work they do to provide for their children despite the challenges of parenting solo.
Examining our unconscious biases will also help single mothers to fully engage with the community.
Stigmatisation of single mothers has come a long way from when CSMC was formed in 1969, at a time when ‘unwed’ mothers were barred from receiving pensions available to abandoned, widowed and divorced mothers. However, the stigma has shifted from positioning single mothers as “morally irresponsible” to viewing them as “economically irresponsible”.ii Attitudes among workers in government agencies, job networks and community organisations can also disempower and undermine single mothers individually, and undervalue them collectively.iii Feeling judged can prevent single mothers from participating actively in local communities such as schools, and can also cause solo parents to hide their status socially and in the workplace.
Training around unconscious bias, listening to real women’s stories, and developing empathetic and inclusive cultures in workplaces, schools and other community hubs all help counter this.
Single mothers should be honoured in our community for the unpaid work they do to provide for their children despite the challenges of parenting solo. Many single mothers are both time and resource poor, and consequently are not always able to take up opportunities in the community and fully engage with supports available.
So a simple way to foster their resilience is, next time you talk to a single mother, tell them you think they’re doing a great job.
Everyone needs to hear that sometimes.
Sally* is a single mother who lives with her 7-year-old son Henry* in an inner city Melbourne suburb. She has full custody of her son, as his father lives overseas, and they receive only $100 a month child support.
The Child Support Agency told her “not to bother” trying to collect more from an overseas father, and Sally has come to feel it’s not worth the acrimony and antagonism.
Sally works two-and-a-half days a week, earning about $2000 a month, which places her well and truly below the poverty line, despite having three degrees.
Sally has struggled with depression this year, and cannot work more while also looking after herself and her son, so working full-time will have to wait until Henry is older. She has no savings, and feels she can’t afford to get sick, as she has a contract position with no security.
Sally feels like she’s just keeping her head above water, and the cessation of the federal government Parenting Payment Single income support when Henry turns 8 is looming.
Being moved onto Newstart, when she is currently working, seems a mismatch, and will be considerably less income.
Sally would be better able to engage with her community if she received some respite.
Connecting with a local group of like-minded single mothers for some emotional support and to perhaps set up babysitting swaps would help. So would receiving vouchers for activities on weekends and school holidays that promote active living and sports, such as swimming lessons.
*Names have been changed.
i Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 12, 2015.
ii E Wolfinger, ‘Australia’s Welfare Discourse and News: Presenting Single Mothers’, Global Media Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 2014.
iii K Natalier, Micro-Aggressions and the Welfare Card, The Power to Persuade Blog, 16 August 2016.