Just don’t tell them you’re a single mum – the advice I ignored

Fiona McUtchen shares her perspective on being a #proudsinglemother this International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day holds special significance for me this year.  2017 being the 10-year anniversary of when I sat a panel interview for my first professional job as an Entry Level Organisational Psychologist with Chandler Macleod. The interview was held just one floor down from where I write this story now.

A few months into starting in the role, my manager told me something that has stayed with me to this day. He told me the reason he was compelled to hire me was not because of my university scores, my experience in a similar role leading up to the interview or because my thesis happened to be on Emotional Intelligence – very much the hot topic of the consulting world at the time. Those achievements were considered on their merits – but there was one other aspect which had the most positive impact – part of my story which I was warned against mentioning by more than a few people if I was really serious about getting the job.

That was the part about me being a single 20s-something mum who worked part time at a café and got through six years of university with a primary school aged daughter. In a strange twist at the time, it was the single professional white collar male with no kids who was my biggest advocate, who immediately perceived this life experience as an asset – something that would enhance my performance and value to the business, not detract from it.

I feel like a decade later, we have come some way. Maybe those that so ardently bid me to self-censor would be slightly more open-minded or even positive now? There has been a shift – perhaps not en masse – but definitely a swing towards people being less hesitant in sharing their stories about being an active and invested mum who also happens to be searching for her next dream role or career opportunity. I’m glad I didn’t shy away from it all those years ago, as tempted as I might have been to avoid ‘advertising’ that I was a mum – especially a single one.

But I also appreciate that not everyone would have looked at things the way my manager did. Many of the women I have worked with and coached in recent years sadly have the opposite story to tell – experiences of both the subtle and not so subtle discrimination which we know continues to be widespread in Australia and other ‘developed’ countries (Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review – Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014).

The attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee.

I don’t know if he’s aware of it today, but that manager had an enormous impact on my life. Not only by giving me the opportunity to develop professionally at Chandler Macleod, but also on my continued confidence in being able to bring my whole self to work each day. And he was right – the attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee. The team I managed out of hours may have only been a team of two – myself and my eight-year-old daughter at the time, but the skills and virtues I developed at home were invaluable to my practice as a Psychologist – particularly those of empathy, resilience, flexibility, creativity, and time management.

That day in 2007 set the tone for things to come. Chandler Macleod has been through enormous change in the last ten years and we have had some dramatic ups and downs like every business, but at every step the business has supported me as a working professional parent.  In the last three years I have had three more beautiful daughters– and whilst it is fair to say that situation was met by some with looks of shock and astonishment (myself included for number four!), it hasn’t slowed down my career. In fact, between baby number two and three, I was offered a promotion to Principal Psychologist, and after my final baby number four last July, I was offered the national role of Project Manager for our internal Culture and Values transformation across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

This was a project I was incredibly passionate about and one that I had asked to be involved in, thinking that may see me running some workshops or doing backend design work. The response from the EGM of HR was to ask if I was interested in being Project Manager -and I could perform this role according to my schedule and the children’s’ needs as long as this worked for the project as well. Finally after years of helping other companies design and develop their ideal culture, I was able to be part of driving that change in my own organisation – I imagined it was similar to what an architect must feel when they finally get to design and live in their own house.

I don’t make these points to be boastful – either for myself or Chandler Macleod – but to share my experience as a positive example of how organisations can embrace working mothers and be bold in the career opportunities they offer. I genuinely feel lucky that I have had a decade of support and encouragement, without bias and without ever being made to feel lesscapable or committed because of the equal investment and energy I put into my family.

But when I think about my daughters and the opportunities they will be given when they enter the world of work, which is not far away for daughter #1 who has just finished high school,  I hope that feeling of being lucky is replaced by a feeling of legitimacy. I hope by then that will be the norm not the exception. IWD is a perfect time to start sharing the stories and examples of how we can make this happen so let’s have the conversation and #beboldforchange #iwd2017

CSMC in the Year of the Rooster

Planning for 2017

CSMC staff and Board have invested time in looking at key areas where we might be able to make a difference. We are a small organisation, with a limited staff and budget; despite this, we support single mothers in Victoria and across Australia including staffing our support line 9.30am-3.30pm Monday to Friday.

We have 2,500 members and this means a lot of stories and diverse single mother family situations. The lived experience of single mothers is particularly valuable at a time where the Federal government is running attacks on everyone on welfare payments and when we and many other community organisations are fighting back.

We were lucky to have Cath Smith, an experienced facilitator and strategist work with us to plan the outlines of our future focus. We will be putting a detailed plan to members soon, but the areas for focus are:

  • Our children’s well-being and education
  • Income security
  • Safe and affordable housing
  • Flexible work options
  • Legal protection
  • Single mothers’ mental health, well-being and connections

We want to profile the success stories of single mother families, not just tell how hard it is. The often wildly incorrect media representation of single mothers does nothing for our reputation and earns us little respect. While it is true that 40% of the children who live in poverty in Australia are in single parent families, it is also true that single mothers:

  • find work where they can
  • are incredibly imaginative about starting up businesses they can run from home
  • parent successfully with few resources; many of our older members have raised kids who have graduated from TAFE, university and apprenticeships and are now successfully contributing to Australian society
  • Come from every background including Indigenous, long established and recent migrant communities and among us have many skills and capabilities
  • Raise children who feel loved and wanted despite the hardships the family faces.

So in 2017, the Year of the Rooster, CSMC is planning to broadcast the voices of single mother families and to work with other organisations to increase the impact of our actions and our reach. We will be asking members to engage more with us through stories and actions for change. Get ready world – we are coming.

Christmas connections

Feeling the pressure?

Parents often go into overdrive at Christmas, worrying about how maimg_8838ny presents to buy and how much they should spend. They plan how to celebrate with food, gifts, decorations and how to mesh siblings, multiple sets of parents, all the kids and pets.

In single parent families, the vibe is similar but more intense with more at stake. Saving to buy presents for kids, particularly for families on Newstart, is a kind of torture. Our kids get so used to the ‘no, we can’t afford it this week’, that their expectations are low, but still they hope that Santa won’t be broke and they won’t miss out. No eight-year-old is suddenly so grown up they don’t want a bike or a scooter or something fun just because the government has moved their mum to Newstart! So excruciating questions for their mother become what, how many and how much, as she watches their hopes rise. She tries to juggle keeping enough cash for some special food and treats on Christmas day, with leaving enough to manage the holidays and cope with the back to school costs. For single mothers who are working or have supportive families, things can be tight but not impossible. For single mothers recently out of violent relationships, dependent on government incomes and in some cases alienated from friends and families, Christmas can loom as a lonely and soul destroying time. How special then are all the ways these mothers find to cope and to coax the laughter, joy and mystery from the abyss.

Last weekend in Nubeena in Tasmania, I talked with a young single mum at the community fair held at the primary school. She and her children arrived early in the morning, travelling from another small town because here they could race around with other children, ride the bucking bull for free, jump in the jumping castle for hours, have their faces painted, see Father Christmas and have a lucky dip for free. There was no food on sale, so the kids didn’t feel odd when their mum called them for a picnic of vegemite sandwiches, carrot sticks, apples and cordial. They had the lollies from the lucky dip for a treat to munch on while they played and their mum got to listen to some great music, chat with a friend, browse the stalls and buy herself and each of the kids a book for twenty cents each. She talked about how wonderful it was to see all her kids happy and relaxed and completely included in an event without the barriers of payment.

This is why for the past few years, CSMC has held a Christmas party event, eveimg_8773n though it is a lot of work that benefits too few of our members. For the kids and mums who come there is face painting, Mrs Claus, smoothie bikes that use their pedal power to mix up drinks, afternoon tea, a magician, a small show-bag of gifts, and a few hours of being special and connected with other families – other mums, other kids.

Many local Councils still have Christmas carols and other free events that are good opportunities for a family celebration. Around Australia, single mother families are preparing for Christmas and making decisions to have fun whatever happens. Some of the things we’ve heard about are:

  • Plans to invite neighbours to put food together for a party
  • Preparations to make pancakes for breakfast, and pack a picnic for lunch in a park with a great playground. Mums and kids tell us the food can be simple, but having it in the park makes it special.
  • Making Christmas cards and biscuits to take to elderly neighbours who don’t have family
  • Making decorations and op shopping for colourful bits to decorate the house
  • Having Dad stay over on the couch to be there for Christmas morning
  • Borrowing lots of Christmas story books and DVDs from the library to read and watch on the day.

Whatever your day and your thoughts about the day, we hope you and your children enjoy each others company, laugh a lot, and feel special.

The staff at CSMC wish you all the best for Christmas, the school holidays and for 2017.

Andi Sebastian

Communication & Policy

The stubborn poverty facing single mother families

povrepfrontpageThe recently released ACOSS Poverty in Australia 2016 report tells us what we already know: lone parents, 84% of whom are single mothers, have the highest prevalence of poverty of all family types, and have done for long time.

In fact, the report tells us that one third of lone parent families (34%) are living below the poverty line of 50% of the medium income. This means that 41% of children in lone parent families are in poverty (compared with 12.5% of children in couple households), an increase over the past 10 years (or more).

“In single-parent families, four children in ten now live in poverty. After 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth, we can do better than this!” states David Morawetz in the report.

 

This leads to the truly pertinent questions: Why is this situation so bad, and what can we do to reduce the structural disadvantage that single mothers face?

The ACOSS Report begins to address the question of why. They show that lone parents experience more poverty due to their lower levels of employment, triggered by the undiluted responsibilities they shoulder which in turn restrict employment choices and options. The latest HILDA report reinforces that this inability to secure suitable, reliable work results in high levels of poverty and welfare reliance.

We know this at CSMC: Single mothers want to work, and do work however, there are not enough family friendly jobs which sole parents desperately want and need. We want school hour jobs, job share positions, jobs which can help us still be parents to our children, and accessible and affordable childcare.

The casualisation of the workforce has taken a terrible toll on women who use our services, with steadily increasing underemployment and increasingly unreliable incomes. Unaffordable housing is another trigger of poverty, with a significant number of our service users paying 55% or more of their limited income on housing. This leaves little for groceries, utilities and school expenses, and nothing for recreational activities or holidays, which just don’t happen in low income single mother families.

The situation is dire for these families and the children growing up in them. In amongst our prosperous society, we have a cluster of disadvantage that has proven stubborn. And no, Prime Minister, making the welfare system more punitive will not give Newstart recipients great incentives to get jobs that simply are not out there. Without adequate support, be it extended family, childcare and after school care, flexible employers or part-time school hour jobs, single mothers trying to support their family on the woefully inadequate Newstart payments will not see an uptake in employment by raising expectations and tightening regulations. Increasing financial penalties will only further embed these families in poverty.

 

John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent de Paul, made the same argument recently in The Guardian: “By focusing on the supposed failings of the individual, we are missing the bleeding obvious: that there are not enough jobs (and more specifically, not enough hours!) for those who can work as well as a seriously inadequate level of income support for those who cannot.”

So, what can we do?

This is the question that the Council of Single Mothers and their Children will be examining over the next months as we undertake strategic planning to set our direction for the next few years. With our specialist knowledge, fever for change and limited resources, what can WE do to better support single mothers and assist them to provide the best possible future for their children, as we know they want to.

If you would care to feed into this process, I’d love to hear from you. Email me with any ideas or suggestions – ceo@csmc.org.au

Jenny Davidson
Endnotes

Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Poverty in Australia 2016, October 2016 

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey: Selected Finding from Waves 1 to 12, July 2016

ABC News, Janda, Michael Unemployment rate only telling half the labour market story 17 Oct 2016

ABC News, Norman, Jane Expectation on welfare recipients ‘miserably low’ as Government seeks to impose tighter regulations, 24 October 2016

The Guardian, Falzon, John Opinion: Australia does not have a welfare problem. We have a poverty problem, 20 September 2016

‘Basics’ are the new luxury

austhouseofrepsExcerpt from the National Council of Single Mother’s Submission to The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Budget Repair) Bill September 2016

Successive Governments have made decisions that have resulted in reducing the main income of sole parent families – the same families who are in the most need and would have an immediate benefit with a hand up rather than increased harm.

Irrespective of which ‘lens’ is applied to measure hardship such as the ACOSS Poverty Report or The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (Hilda) it is sole parent families, 88% are headed up by a mother, who are the struggling just to survive.

New research from Good Shepherd Microfinance found that single mothers are over-represented among ‘payday lending’ borrowers. The research found that while 15% of women are single mothers, they now represent 47% of women using payday loans and the use of payday loans was to provide the basics.

“Single mums, whose carer duties often limit their earning potential, are also over represented in repeat borrowers and those with concurrent loans, and are far more likely to borrow for essential items like food, children’s needs and school trips. These women are having to borrow at huge interest just to provide for their children – and they’re being charged a premium for it”.[i]

The current environment requires a sole parent to compete with job seekers and new data by the ABS stated that there were 345,000 people registered with Centrelink. This does not include underemployment and the under-employed person indicated that they are seeking an extra 15 hours per week.[ii]

These numbers are imposing enough but are magnified as single mothers do not start from an equal footing. It is more likely than not that these job seekers will be living in housing stress and only one small step away of feeling the consequences of an insecure tenancy and/or homelessness for their family.

A sole parent family, when undertaking their mutual obligation activities, may do so from a nearby internet café that offers free WI-FI because their own service has been reduced or ceased. These job seekers must be careful not to outstay their welcome as they sip on water and most likely be hungry as food security is also a reality in poor families. It is also likely that they will have ignored their health as health care is now beyond their affordability and it’s no longer universal.[iii]

As a country we then tell the parent who is meeting the demands of sole parenting; providing the care, the love and the nurturing and every other parental aspect, that once they find employment that they will be able to retain $62 of their income per week before their $285.95 it is reduced (Newstart principle carer).

This will occur even if the employment is low paid, part time and/or insecure. We further tell this family that this is the best that they can expect as the already inadequate income free threshold will freeze for the next three-years.

As a country we ignore the plight of child poverty and the impact that it has on the child as they will struggle to reach their full potential and talents. Child Poverty remains concentrated in sole parent families and the Hilda Study again had it as unacceptable and stubbornly persistence at or above 20%.

The child poverty rate is consistently below the community-wide poverty rate, averaging approximately 10% over the 2001 to 2014 period. However, this largely reflects the very low poverty rates for children in couple families. The probability of being in poverty is very high for children in lone-parent families, in most years hovering between 20% and 25%”[iv]

Our policy response to child support is stagnant and it appears that we accept $2.1 BILLION owed in unpaid or underpaid Child Support as we fail to remedy the alarm that children are missing out. The harm grows when policy remains ‘gendered blind’ and we accept the inherent discrepancies in the Superannuation system, a stubborn wage gap and we don’t account for the contribution and cost of providing unpaid care, all of which disadvantages single mothers. The situation is not ‘wicked’ we are not without solutions.

The system is broken but we are not without practical options. NCSMC recommends that the Federal Government:

  1. Immediately restore the Parenting Payment Single, a modest payment that was structured to support sole parent families. It provides a foundation that enables a mother to participate in part-time work and/or study whilst meeting the demands of sole parenting. The Parenting Payment was not ‘poverty proof’ but it is a significant improvement than forcing families onto Newstart when the youngest child turns eight years.
  2. Develop a system where paid work becomes the financial gain for a family and that income free area for Newstart is elevated to that of the Parenting Payment Single. This is a sensible response noting that the Parenting Payment Single was structured for single parents to enter and engage in the labour market and meet the demands of sole parenting.
  3. Institute an income support system that is not a ‘political game’ but rather the product of a reputable and independent body. A body that will make an assessment which is based in solid research and that will quarantine Australians against poverty and build economic resilience.
  4. Guarantee child support, which would immediately cease the practice of post-separation financial abuse and control. The current situation forces mothers to hope that the nominated amount is collected and then paid on time. It’s flawed budgeting and one that families should not have to endure.

We are arguing that there is work to be done; that there are opportunities and the benefits would be immediately felt by the families who are in need. This action should be first in the ‘Order of Business’ and take precedence over Legislation that increases hardship.

[i] Women’ s Agenda Women vulnerable to high cost credit

[ii] news.com.au Hopeless cases the bitter taste of Australia’s employment problem

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald Medical costs forcing Australians to skip healthcare

[iv] The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 14 (page 31)

 

Cuts to the Energy Supplement loom

Parliament will return on 12 September to debate the omnibus Bill with $6.1billion in spending cuts, most of which are backed by both the government and Labor.

This includes removing the Energy Supplement for new recipients of Newstart and other benefits. People already receiving the Energy Supplement will continue to receive it – for now!

The Energy Supplement of $4.20 per week for singles (including single mothers), is the only real increase in the Newstart allowance in 22 years, and even with it recipients of Newstart are barely making ends meet. In fact, 55% are living below the poverty line at the current rate of $570.80 a fortnight for single parents, which is a decrease in real terms of $10 per fortnight since June 1998.

Without this small amount, regardless of the reason it was provided to families in the first place (to offset the impact of the carbon price that never went ahead), Newstart recipients, in particular single mothers trying to raise children, will struggle even more to survive.
CSMC fervently encourages Labor to insist the government find more equitable means to reduce the deficit and not to support this cut to Australian’s poorest families.

Take action!

Email the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and ask him to support single mother families and tell him how it will effect you, or email your federal politician and ask them to support single mothers.

Micro-Aggressions and Single Mothers

Micro-aggressions – the many little devaluing and disrespectful verbal interactions and injustices that are almost too small to identify, but accumulate to make the recipient feel judged, undermined and demoralised. Sound familiar? I think for many single mothers, it will.

Last week I was delighted to attend the Women’s Policy Action Tank which aimed to put women in the centre of policy development. It was an amazing array of cross-sector panels, new research and helpful insights, much of which is very relevant to CSMC’s work with single mothers. Still fresh in my CEO role, I was very proud to be representing CSMC and heartened by the response I received from supporters of CSCM in the community sector.

Dr Kristin Natalier’s research into micro-aggressions really struck a chord with me. Kristin’s work has centred on single mothers on concession cards, who are the primary users of our support services.

There are three types of micro-aggressions:

  • Micro-assaults – often deliberately discriminatory or unhelpful comments, for example representing single mothers are bad mothers;
  • Micro-invalidations – negating the lived realities of a group, such as implying the single mothers run out of money because they waste it, rather than the reality that there just isn’t enough;
  • Micro-insults – demeaning and undermining interactions that are obviously rude or insulting.

These many small negative interactions serve to remind low income single mothers, or other marginalised groups, that money and power are bound together in ways that disadvantage them, and cumulatively represent the underlying systematic power inequalities. Ultimately, women’s sense of self and confidence becomes eroded, and individually and collectively, single mothers are devalued.

What can you do, upon receiving such behaviour? You can counter them directly in conversation, if possible, with a statement like “That’s not my experience, and it’s not the experience of many other single mothers”, or by using phrases or asking questions such as:

  • I’ve experienced the opposite…
  • I’m not sure that reflects my experiences…
  • I would disagree with that…
  • Who have you talked to about that?
  • Do you think there are other opinions about that?*

It’s not always going to be comfortable to response verbally in the moment, however these injustices do need to be taken seriously.

In many cases they may be linked to the culture of the agencies in which staff are dishing them out, and there are recourses to complain about the way you are treated by staff. For instance, you can make a complaint about Centrelink by calling 1800 132 468 or online.

Finally, including single mothers in development of policy that impacts them directly will help to build policies that reflects their lived reality.

For now, there is this – you are not imagining it! You are not alone!

If you would like to share experiences you’ve had of micro-aggressions, you can post on our Facebook page.

For support, referral, advocacy and information, please call our Support Line on 03 9645 0622 between 9.30am and 3pm Monday to Friday. If you’re outside Melbourne, you can call 1300 552 511 for the cost of a local call.

At CSMC, all our staff are, or have been, single mothers and we understand the challenges and joys of parenting solo and the realities of grappling with government agencies, family law, limited finances and other difficulties.

Jenny Davidson
CEO

Read more about Kristin’s work on micro-aggressions here. 
*This language has been adapted from a blog on sexist micro-aggressions.

 

FTB: how party policies affect income support

Family Tax Benefit (FTB) is made up of two parts (A) & (B)

• FTB A is a means-tested payment for families with dependent children between the ages of 0 and 19, worth a maximum of $234 per child per fortnight, depending on income and the child’s age.
• FTB B is a means-tested payment for single-parent families and families with one income of $100,000 a year or less, worth a maximum of $153 per family a fortnight, depending on the age of the youngest child and the income of any secondary income earner in the family.

Changes

• From 1 July 2016, FTB B will be scrapped for couples when their youngest child turns 13. Single parents and grandparent carers will continue to get this payment until their youngest child turns 18. The legislation has passed the Parliament effective 1st July 2016.

FTB Party Promises

• The Coalition has promised to increase the maximum rate payment by $10 a fortnight on FTB A if Parliament passes legislation to scrap FTB-B.
• Labor, The Greens and most Independent Senators oppose this change with the Government only receiving support from Senator Bob Day and Senator David Leyonhjelm .
• The Coalition aims to gradually phase out these supplements by 2018, arguing they are no longer needed.
• Labor opposes the plan to scrap the supplements and will instead reduce the FTB-A supplement by 50 per cent for families earning more than $100 000 per year, and will maintain the freeze on thresholds until 2020.

Parenting Payment Single or Newstart?

• At this stage, the major parties do not have any policies which support reversing the removal of PPS.
• The Greens equity policy clearly states that they will reverse cuts to parenting payment single and increase Newstart by $57 per week (which would be the first increase of in 21 years).
• Labour have released a policy ‘tackling inequality identifying the need for an adequate safety net but no firm details on what this would mean.

Labor’s Child Care Policy

Yesterday, the leader of the ALP, Mr Bill Shorten announced Labor’s child care policy.

Labor is promising to lift the childcare rebate cap from $7,500 to $10,000 a year per child, to help more than 100,000 families. This rebate is available to all families, regardless of income.

As stated by Mr Shorten “We need to make sure that child care remains affordable, it remains quality and it remains fair.”

“Child care makes the difference as to whether or not mums are able to go to work, whether children get the best start in life,” he said.

When asked whether Labor will fund child-care rebate by cutting Family Allowance, Mr Shorten was quoted as saying “that is silly economics.”

Confused about child care rebates? This article may shed some light:
www.mamamia.com.au/child-care-election/