‘There’s no respite’: Aussies secretly struggling
I'M the single parent with no car, a pretty smile, too many bags and a touch of chaos embedded under her nails who can easily recall the times we were caught out on foot with the pram and scooter in a winter thunderstorm when the kids were very little.
I'd feel makeup and wet hair in my eyes as we recoiled from lightning and I'd almost cry wondering: "Is anybody thinking about us?" Then when we were all home together in a warm bath, with our soaked clothes left at the doorway, I'm still aware of feeling such immense gratitude we had hot water, safety and one another. That's the bliss that mattered.
I sometimes run a little late for work in the morning because my children and I had extra hugs and more tender exchanges than time really permitted.
I say, "I love you" and "did you know I love you?" several times a day, it's spontaneous and true; it's not mechanical. They light me up and fill the empty hole that was there before there was them. Sometimes my daughter, aged five, says: "I love you too mummy." (Thoughtful pause) "But mummy I love my brother just a little bit more than you. Is that OK? Don't be sad. I still love you berry much."I appreciate this brimming with cuteness time and know it will pass quicker than I would like.
My son is 10. He will help brush his little sister's hair in the morning and encourage her to put on her shoes and socks even thought he'd rather be playing cricket. He reads to her at night while I attempt to clean up the mess that won't quit. We have no dishwasher but many dishes. I'm probably a messy cook but I can boot a ball with gusto.
Our little old house sheds dust in a way that could not be considered fair. The beautiful trees on our doorstep shower our place with leaves and fig debris daily. The surfaces in the bathroom defy looking clean because they need new enamel and resurfacing.
I don't want to ask the landlord for anything because if the rent rises and we had to move we'd lose the gift of our precious inner-city neighbourhood, which would normally be out of our price range. While I'm currently navigating the secret-shame I see my boy carrying because he doesn't have a more traditional set-up like the kids at school, we have lots of cheer and plenty of wins.
The children are happy and healthy, they went to an excellent child care centre and now they go to a lovely school. We live in a little pocket where people say "hello" to one another on the street and the pulse of life is apparent. There's a vibe of integrity, creativity, entrepreneurial business, and community. It seems to me the kids want for nothing important, and my relationship with their father is usually cordial to say the least.
Although it's not necessarily fair. For instance, on a much lower income than most people, I spend two-thirds of it on rent and a large percentage of my time on child admin, cooking, cleaning and then there are the mental gymnastics related to organising and "stress management" tactics.
Cinderella here is blessed to have had a few fairy-goodness people who've generously helped me in ways I fear I'll never be able to repay. But I can't help thinking everything has been harder than it could have been or should have been and I'm concerned for the people who are less fortunate than me and are alone with their children.
Years ago, I crossed paths with a single mother, Lisa; striking in terms of style and looks as well as being articulate and intelligent. I recall her confession that since she worked full time, she'd sometimes used amphetamines to stay up at night and get the housework done.
It sounded somewhat extreme at the time but now I think I understand. It feels like there is no respite from the sense of overwhelm. I'd like to sit up like J.K Rowling at night and have a go at writing books, but I just can't stay awake and I've got work the next day.
Dating can be hard because there is no time to "catch up" but also just because somebody asks you out to dinner doesn't mean they have any intention of paying for you. I've been in the awkward situation of being hit up for half of an expensive bill that was never going to be in my budget. I felt too ashamed to ask about how we would work out the expenses before we ate.
One of my single mother friends says everybody she dates seems to think she's a gold digger because she doesn't own a house. She also says couple families never ask her to their parties. It can be hard with friends and any kind of sit down restaurant dinner. Those invitations always give me anxiety. But eating out has become such a big part of our culture.
My busy mind has a long loop of thoughts that go something like this: "God I can't do the maths homework, people are noticing you go around in circles at work with no progression; why can't you be more impressive?; make lunches; change sheets; why are there so many forms to fill out?; get the kids down to the beach, it's a nice day; you've got to not give up on love; I don't have any money; too tired; when will I ever get to stop waxing?; clean hair, nails, teeth, shoes for three people; how did cucumbers become $6 a kilo?; meditate; go to the gym; don't let your kids watch a screen; get the mould off the ceiling; I wish I could afford a cleaner; it's so weird food worth eating costs so much; why are you such a loser?; pay the electricity; why isn't the NBN working again?; get to work on time; the childcare bill is overdue; there's no time to fold the washing; I should iron more; we need more groceries; I think the washing machine is running on love; I'm so grateful for that."
It's probably not healthy and would have me fail mindfulness class, but it's hard to stop. Always so aware I'm not quite hitting the mark or ticking off the list. There are still a few knots left in my daughter's hair that everybody will notice. Her plaits are lopsided because I did them at the bus stop.
I understand that if your life was very organised before the breakup you may not feel this way as a single parent. But I suspect there are so many people, particularly women, who are struggling because they're alone. And some might say well get your ex-partner to have the children more. However, these are the children that I wanted, that I carried and gave birth to, gave up career opportunities for, that I lost years of sleep to.
The babies I walked up and down the street at night for hours. I don't want to live without them for half the week. This is their home. For so many single parents in dire circumstances I imagine the children's other parent is not an option anyway.
The census tells us there are 949,000 single parent families in Australia, but I think about all the people like myself who didn't find the time to fill it out. Well you know I tried and then it didn't work and then it was like a balloon that floated up into the sky, not unlike so many of the loose ends in my life. Hence, I'm guessing there are probably more single parents than we realise. How many of these families are feeling disadvantaged? As a society are we paying any attention?
When the breakup with my kids' dad first happened and things were particularly tough, my mother suggested I contact a charity. I was open to it but they told me help was not available to a person in my area. I had the feeling one needed to slip through the cracks before any help from institutions might be available.
At work we have quotas in place which means some jobs are only available to applicants from a specific cultural background. There is a lot of focus on LGBT and diversity. I see the terrific in the fair workplace the organisation is creating. There is increasing proof society can care about equality. Some companies have quotas in place for hiring neuro diverse (people with autism). I often wish somebody would come up with a fairness policy for single parents.
They probably can't work extra hours, network or career focus the same way a two-parent family can. There is no formal recognition you might be compromised. I know a single mother who had a well-paid teaching job in a private school. She said "I had to quit because I was asked to work back so incredibly often to attend functions and it wasn't negotiable." Now she has a very low paid job that means she can be a parent.
Not having a career in place before I had children left me in a vulnerable position I'm not sure how to get out of and I think there are many people like me.
We didn't intend to become vulnerable and how do we turn it around? I think giving support to people early before they have a mental health problem that will get them the support later is a better idea. I keep hearing those stories about older women who live impoverished in their cars but I haven't heard what we are doing about it! It's a pity when you live in a society where help feels like a four-letter word.
Non-single parents will read this and say I feel like this too. However, it's very different when you know deep down your partner has your back. Obviously, nobody intentionally becomes vulnerable, do they? But how to turn it around?
When it comes to the wider public discourse when do people ever speak up for single parents? A single parent is possibly too busy feeling like they've been sat on by an elephant or taming wolves at the door to find time to speak to the media.
And while there is a lobby group, I never hear about them. I feel as though the issues are invisible. I'm sure single parents of previous eras would argue they had it much tougher, but I don't think that means we've got it right. When googling "help for single parents", I encountered so many rabbit holes I opted to get back to mopping up fairy glitter.
While there is care for one another in our hood, people are too stretched to Love Thy Neighbour in the way my stay-at-home community-minded grandmother did from the 40s to the 90s.
Imagine if we had a government and media who, rather than fixate on leadership challenges and gossip, focused on the state of our families. Is it so crazy to think that if you're earning under $70,000 and working full-time maybe bimonthly you could have a visit from a cleaner paid for by the government?
Maybe sliding scales for tuition could be more easily available. Could it be possible if you put your child in preschool or a uni sports camp you wouldn't have to fill out 20 pages of paperwork to get a very moderate discount every time you try to claim.
Maybe you could get a discount on home repairs or fresh food? Could we think BIGGER PICTURE and better when it comes to single parent families and quit ignoring so many of them exist and often it's a bloody slog. Our sole parent's children are part of the future, etc, etc and so on.
I work full-time and continue my specialty juggling act because I don't want to live in a place I might find depressing and isolating. I also don't want to live in an area that might expose my children to crime and violence. I feel some guilt for having these thoughts, even though they are surely reasonable. I want them to believe life is beautiful and progressive. It bothers me that many single parent families probably live in sad places.
Some days I feel so exhausted it worries me we might end up in those places too. A brain haze settles in behind my eyes, which makes being consistent or having ambition seemingly impossible.
But every morning those little beings walk down the steep, in-need-of-a-paint-job old terrace stairs, then smile and say, "Hello mum", "Mummy, can you see me?", it feels completely clear what is most important to me.
I glance at the 'creative' work-in-progress nail polish job my daughter has given me the night before, look around at the controlled chaos, and know I'll do anything to launch them gloriously into their one precious life.
And it might not be tidy, but I'll do it with a touch of grace.