There are days where Julie wakes up and her heart starts pounding straight away. “And I’m not even properly awake enough to know what it is.” Then the Melbourne single mother of two remembers what she’s worried about – money.
Julie has a daughter completing year 11 and a son in grade 1. She shares care with her son’s father, but her daughter’s dad has never really been around. A counsellor, Julie started her own business just before Covid hit, and since then, the work has been up and down. She’s currently on jobseeker as her clients have once again dropped away with Melbourne’s latest lockdown. She is now eating into her savings, but feels lucky to have them.
Families in lockdown are experiencing pressure on all fronts, but for single parents the toll is all the greater without a partner to provide financial and emotional back up, or even just another physical presence in the house to give them precious minutes alone.
Financial and employment burden
Many of Australia’s one million single parents – 80% of them women – were already in financial distress before Covid, but according to research released by the Grattan Institute earlier this year, employment for single parents fell more than 10% between December 2019 and September 2020, and about 50,000 single parents dropped out of the workforce altogether during the first lockdown. Many single parents had not recovered from last year’s blows before they were plunged back into lockdowns this year.
“Lockdowns hit single parents harder because they are disproportionately employed in sectors impacted by lockdowns like hospitality and retail and also because their caring responsibilities make it harder for them to maintain hours of paid work when schools and childcare are closed and some informal care networks (like grandparents) are off limits,” says Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute.
And despite the vulnerability of such a large cohort of people, there is no extra government assistance on offer.
“The coronavirus supplement is no longer in place for those on single parenting payment meaning those without supplementary income are back living below the poverty line,” says Wood. “Many that supplement parenting payment with income from work will have lost work or hours due to Covid health restrictions. While they may get access to the $200-a-week disaster supplement, it is unlikely to replace the income lost for most so they will also be doing it tough.”
This lack of financial support is hitting single mothers hardest. More than a third of single mother families live below the poverty line. “They actually had a reprieve last year … the social security net was a liveable income,” says Jenny Davidson, CEO of Council of Single Mothers and their Children. “They knew it wouldn’t last, so they were really careful, you know, they tried to put aside a nest egg and they dealt with things that they hadn’t been able to afford for years, like dental work or getting the car back into being sufficiently safe. But that’s all gone. And the financial insecurity is just overwhelming.”
There are “so many intersecting problems,” says Davidson. “Some of these families have really small living arrangements, or not all of them have internet at home … It may be that financial hardship is triggering housing instability and that triggers mental health issues, or it could be that recovery from family violence has resulted in mental health issues for the children and the family, which is resulting in child school refusal, or an inability to hold down a job because you or your child have so many appointments.”
‘There aren’t many boots on the ground here’
In lockdown since June, Sydney-based Clare, who is immunocompromised, usually takes her six-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son whenever they have to get groceries as she doesn’t like to leave them home alone. But one day recently they refused to leave the house. So she left with the agreement that her son stayed on the phone as she walked 50 metres up the road to the service station to get milk. For a precious five minutes, “I realised I was on my own … for the first time in, I don’t even know.”
The only other significant chunk of time that Clare has had to herself since lockdown began was when she left her kids with a friend while she spent the day moving her elderly mother from one nursing home to another. Before lockdown, the kids stayed with their father about one night a fortnight but the arrangement was dropped once his LGA was flagged as an area of concern.
Clare has a neighbour up the road who cooks them a mean ragu every now and then. “Having someone cook dinner sometimes is just the greatest luxury.” Her good friend (who is also listed as her next of kin) lives down the coast, they talk on the phone a couple of times a week. She’s also in a Facebook group for single mothers. “And that’s about it. There aren’t many boots on the ground here.”
Clare works from home four days a week as a graphic designer. “I’m really grateful … that my job has kept ticking along in the background.” She is also able to save on things like out of school care fees and petrol. “So there’s a little buffer there to have takeaway once a fortnight or something, which has been a huge treat and also gives me a bit of a rest.”
Clare’s daughter’s iPad sits next to her at her work desk, “and I literally have one eyeball on my screen and one eyeball on hers the whole time.” A break from the kids comes in the form of ten minutes standing in the garden, which most often is interrupted.
“I probably sit down to rest for the first time each day at about 10pm. There’s just no mental respite, at all, all day – from work, school, to checking in on the kids’ emotional needs, shopping, I’m power of attorney for my mum, so that admin. So I make a cup of tea and I just watch something for an hour. And then it turns into like a couple more hours and then suddenly it’s 2 am. I feel physically exhausted, but mentally refreshed from that alone time,” she says. “And then it’s time to do it all again.”
Julie and Clare are both acutely aware of other single mothers who have it tougher than themselves. Clare feels lucky to not be sharing care in some ways. Julie feels lucky to be on good terms with her son’s father, as their son has special needs which means he has very high energy levels. “When he goes to his dad’s it means I just can have a day to lie on the floor and binge watch TV.”
Clare had to laugh the other day when her kids’ school suggested that if anyone was having a bad day, they should let work go and “just bake a cake.” It can also feel pretty isolating reading other school parent’s comments on social media about sharing the load with their partner or other women asking if they can send their kids to school for a few days “because their husband won’t help.” “All of that is just so far from my reality,” says Clare. “If I could just have a shower by myself it’d be amazing … I have taught my son to make me a cup of tea, and that feels good.”
In the end, many single parents are forced to have to make terrible compromises – “either work or education has got to give … and then sleep,” says Davidson. There are those losing sleep over losing work and there are those who are trying to work full-time, “either from 9am to 2am or getting up to do extra work between 4am and 7am, and that’s not sustainable.”
Clare, however, has faith in the resilience of single parents, she says, “because you know, we’ve already done it pretty tough.
“We just keep going, to make sure our kids can learn and emotionally grow … That’s what our kids need. So that’s just what we do.”