The women left out of the work debate

Even for those of us not impacted, it's easy to see how stressful single parentin g can be.
Even for those of us not impacted, it's easy to see how stressful single parentin g can be. Photo: Supplied

This year's Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey revealed a raft of unsettling, but nonetheless unsurprising facts. Essentially, men aren't doing their share of household chores.

But what happens if there is no man around? Put simply, housework is the least of a single mother's concerns.

In 2016 the number of single-parent families was 959,000, and of those households, lone mothers made up 88 per cent The costs facing these single-parent families are similar to coupled parents – from rent to childcare expenses – but what they spend on average shows that there are recognisable disparities.

Even for those of us who aren't directly impacted by this data, it's hard to miss that single mothers face discriminatory societal prejudices that focus on their character and parenting quality, in addition to the heavy financial stress. These factors have them confronting hurdles with little to no support.

“There are so many families in Australia who are doing it tough, even with two incomes and two parents to share the responsibilities. When this gets cut in half, the pressures double – and so for single mothers, everything is twice as hard,” says Emma King, CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS).

VCOSS, a community sector peak body that works towards the elimination of poverty, has advocated on behalf of single mothers impacted by financial hardship and employment discrimination. King argues that the latter issue – employment – is the leading concern for lone mothers in Australia.

“The cost of child care, inflexible working hours, social stigma and employer discrimination all play a part in making it hard to find reliable work and make a decent living,” says King.

“If you can’t get a decent job and you have sole responsibility for supporting a child, even affording the basics of living can be a real struggle: keeping a roof over your child’s head, putting food on the table and paying the bills.”

The HILDA Survey shed light on another point of concern that hits single-parent homes harder and on a much wide scale: child poverty. According to the report, poverty is significantly more extensive among children in single-parent families than among children in couple-parent families.


“In all years [2001-2016], the poverty rate for children in single-parent families is over twice the poverty rate for children in couple-parent families.”

In case studies provided to Fairfax Media by VCOSS we see just how vulnerable single mothers are to financial strain.

Ursula, a sole parent from Melbourne, purchased her first home while attending university and felt that her part-time work was providing financial stability. After having a child with her partner in her mid-30s their relationship ended and she became a sole parent. At first, Ursula was subsisting but after experiencing reductions in child support, a lack of stable employment for a sole parent with a frequently ill child, coupled with higher interest rates, she began struggling to keep her home.

As stressors began accumulating, she found herself redrawing money from her mortgage and using credit cards to pay for essentials like utility bills. As a result, her credit card debts reached $50,000 and she now finds herself owing more money on her house than before.

Ursula's case study, as provided by VCOSS, reveals that, due to permanent heart damage, she is suffering from cold-intolerance and therefore needs to use electric heating on a routine basis.

The single mother tells VCOSS that her family is "just trying to pull ourselves out of financial hardship, which is hard because my career is down the toilet." Today, Ursula lives without credit cards on a limited income. When asked how she copes Ursula says "you just go without sometimes".

Bronwen Gray, a social worker specialising in domestic violence at Women's Legal Services Queensland (WLS), highlights the other side of single parenthood that impacts women. Gray tells Fairfax Media that the organisation has come across clients who are oftentimes vulnerable women.

Last financial year WLS provided services to 25,000 at-risk women, 55 per cent of whom were at urgent risk of violence. The role of WLS in these cases is important, Gray argues, because women escaping from domestic violence “are immediately confronted with navigating a confusing and often inaccessible legal system to try to obtain safety for themselves or their children.”

Gray explains that for many of the women that WLS supports the decision to become a single parent “is ultimate a choice between leaving a violent relationship—and possibly facing poverty and homelessness—or staying with the abuser in order to keep a roof over their, and their children’s, heads.”

Solutions vary, depending on the circumstances facing each individual, but for starters the Council of Single Mothers and their Children Victoria (CSMC) has called for the creation of supportive employment opportunities that are flexible and take into consideration the necessity of child care accessibility, and the importance of being involved in their children's lives. The CSMC also brings attention to unconscious biases directed at single mothers, and how, confronting these prejudices will encourage bridge building and toughen support for struggling mothers.

“Many single mothers are both time and resource poor, and consequently are not always able to take up opportunities in the community. 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.”