The Challenge of Being a Single Mother and Working

By: Jenny Davidson
Categories: Support Services Working Mum

All working mothers understand about the juggle in a way that non-mothers do not. I sometimes think we need a special siren for our cars/ bikes/ public transport for when we are rushing to get to childcare or after school pick up before it closes.

For single mothers, the situation is intensified. There’s mathematical reasoning to this: in a two parent family, there are 48 hours in every day to work, parent, look after the home and family, and undertake all that life requires, however the parents choose to divide that work. In Australia’s 949,000 single parent families, 81% of which are headed by a single mother, there are only 24 hours in which to squeeze in paid and unpaid work, parenting and everything else. It can feel like a relentless whirlwind with no end in sight.

I feel very blessed to have a part-time CEO role, running the Council of Single Mothers and their Children. Part-time CEO roles are like ‘hen’s teeth’. I get to have the strategic challenges of leading an organisation while still being there for my son, who is only 6 &1/2. Of course, I need more hours at work! I don’t have a daily or weekly To Do list, I just have a list that runs from one week to the next. Some of those ‘important/ not urgent’ jobs have to wait a fair time to get done, not to mention the ‘not urgent/ not important’ ones! However, our budget does not currently allow me to pick up more paid hours (let’s not linger on the unpaid hours I contribute), which is a blessing in disguise as I do want to be there for my child while he’s little.

Of course, I’m always late for pick up, always squeezing meetings and phone calls into ‘our time’. I’m lucky that after-school care at his school runs only until 4.15 (!) as it propels me out the door of the office, 10 minutes after I should have left and generally in the midst of a task. During the week, I don’t even turn off my computer… I just drop everything, turn off the screen and run out the door (having been ignoring my “school run” alarm for too long). My working mother always said that the hardest part of the day was getting out of the door in the morning, and second hardest was leaving the office at night. I agree, but in reverse!

We are lucky in this modern age that the women who fought for our rights before us have enabled us to make choices about what suits us as mothers: Work full-time; work part-time; don’t work at all, for a little while or some years. Not all of us can get the flexibility we need, and not all of us can get the amount of work we would like. By and large, however, our work choices are accepted by society, so that’s one less hassle.

Most single mothers, including those receiving government benefits, work, or are seeking work that fits with their family responsibilities. Maternal employment rates in Australia are lower than comparable OECD countries[i], and this is even more so among single mothers. One reason for this is that Australian work is dichotomised between long full-time hours and casual, insecure work. The former is better paid and more secure but difficult for single mothers to reconcile around caring commitments. The latter provides more time for caring responsibilities but no security of employment and is generally poorly paid, affecting the family’s immediate financial position and the mother’s long-term financial security.

Single mothers have a right to rewarding, equitably paid jobs that complement their family responsibilities. This includes securing jobs that align with their qualifications, rather than taking jobs that fit around their caring roles that are often lower paid, and attaining qualifications to improve their employment options.

The labour market as a whole needs to adopt more family-friendly policies such as a shorter working week if it is to more equitably distribute caring responsibilities and improve work/life balance. We need more permanent part-time jobs that allow the support structures to be put in place to facilitate work on set days of the week, such as before and after-school care. The casualisation of the workforce has had a devastating impact on the financial security of single mothers, while shift work is generally impossible without inter-generational or similar caring support.

To help you in your work or search for work, I would like to share a few tips from my own experiences and the 2200 single mother families we support each year.

When looking for work:

  • Don’t tell them you are a single mother; indeed your parenting status is none of their business.
  • That said, try and find out how family-friendly the workplace is. Can you find someone who works or worked there to ask questions such as: How do they handle school holidays? Can staff work from home with a child is sick? Do the bosses or male employees ever leave to do the school run?
  • Find another mum to job share with. This is still easier once you’re employed, but increasingly women are applying together for a single full-time job. The more it’s done, the more normalised it will become.

When working:

  • Find other single mums in your workplace, or if you would prefer not to mention your marital status, other mums. Form an informal or formal network in the workplace where you can support one another through kids’ sick days, sporting events and school holidays. If you take turns to carry the load, it will benefit everyone; and will by-pass any resentment from employees without kids who feel it always gets left up to them.
  • Do not be afraid to self-advocate for what you need (although do it with some caution). For example, even if your work is casual, you can ask your boss to give you the same days each week so you can plan your wraparound supports for your kids.

Managing expenses:

  • With growing energy bills, quarterly water bills, and huge sporadic costs like car registration, a broken down white good, health costs and school expenses, it can be very hard to make the money stretch every pay. Add up your big bills over a year, divide by 12 if you’re paid monthly, or 26 if you’re paid fortnightly, and put this sum in a ‘big bill account’ each pay, hopefully with a bit of a buffer for unexpected costs.
  • With housing being our biggest expense, consider sharing a house with another single mother family. We have a closed Facebook group to facilitate this process (see our website below).

Single mothers are the unsung heroes in our society; they’re doing more with less and they raising great kids. But it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air, support your family, care for your kids and still have any energy left to enjoy your children, or even date! Self care is important, even if it’s just a deep breath here and there or a piece of chocolate after the kids are in bed. And if you think things need to change, join our work to build a society where single mother families are valued and treated equally and fairly.

You can find loads of information relevant for single mothers on our website and, if you like, you can join our community. Membership is free for single mothers. www.csmc.org.au

The national survey of single mothers is now open. The Council of Single Mothers and their Children want to hear your experiences and priorities – www.csmc.org.au/2018-survey – survey closes Sunday 8th October and participants go into a draw to win one of eight $50 Visa gift cards.

[i] 62% compared to the OECD average of 66% Productivity Commission Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, Inquiry Report No. 73, 2014

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About Jenny Davidson
Jenny Davidson is the CEO, Council of Single Mothers and their Children and also a busy single mother of one. The Council of Single Mothers and their Children Inc. is a non-profit organisation founded in 1969 by single mothers to secure a better life for themselves and their children. They achieve change by championing the voices and needs of single mother families and providing specialist support services.