I never intended to be a single mum. Indeed, when I turned 38 and had notched up 10 years without a partner, I investigated having a baby by myself and very quickly decided not to. It wasn’t the medical intervention or cost that put me off, it was the knowledge that trying to raise a child alone would be horrendously difficult and expensive and would almost certainly mean giving up my career for less demanding work that I could fit around being a full time, solo mum. I also wasn’t at all sure I was up to meeting the emotional needs of a child on my own. So no: not for me, I reluctantly decided.
As it turned out I met a wonderful man just after my 39th birthday and, a couple of years later, we were married with a beautiful baby girl. My late life miracle was just that for six years or so – a miracle of unexpected joy and family life. And then my husband began to get very sick.
He’d warned me when we met. He was a “bad bet”, he said, having barely survived childhood cancer and the treatment that, back in the 1980s, was almost as brutal as the disease. Massive doses of radiation had left him with significant damage to his heart valves, vascular system and other key organs. He survived on a cocktail of medication. His health was never good in all the time we were together, but secondary cancer was defeated while I was pregnant, and a quadruple bypass and heart valve replacement were successful when our daughter was just six months old. We had a good half decade after that.
But in early 2020, during Melbourne’s first pandemic lock down, my beloved entered a spiral of ill health that saw him spend at least 70 % of his time in hospital over the next three years – a hospital we were unable to visit due to the necessary protocols around Covid-19. His multiple, complex health problems began to cascade, and he lost a foot, then a lower leg, to amputation, and then the use of his other leg due to a blood clot which caused massive nerve damage.
He fought on, in a cycle of months spent in hospital and a couple of weeks at home before every next challenge. In the middle of a once in a century pandemic, his immune system struggled with the slightest infection. Last July his heart began to fail again and only experimental surgery pulled him through.
Finally, after five unexpected months at home with us over summer, he developed sepsis from a relatively innocuous skin infection and, despite fighting valiantly again to stay with us, he died of a massive brain haemorrhage in early February this year.
It was four days before his 51st birthday.
Our daughter is nine years old.
Being a single mother to a young child is, as I had suspected all those years ago, incredibly challenging. It crept up on me over the years my husband was ill and absent for weeks and months at a time, so it’s not a sudden shock to not have him here to help. Nor is it “hard” because I have so much love and gratitude for our daughter. But it’s very, very difficult.
A nine year old child can’t be left alone for a moment, obviously. I can’t pop out to the shops if I’m out of milk. I can’t make casual plans outside school hours. I can’t stay back at work unexpectedly if needed. Interstate, overnight work travel has become virtually impossible.
There’s no-one else to read stories at bedtime or help with homework or take her to swimming lessons or weekend activities.
Our income has been cut in half but the mortgage has not, so there’s no money for cleaners or regular babysitters. I have no time for anything other than work, parenting and domestic labour. I am constantly exhausted and emotionally drained. I’m worried about money and every interest rate rise requires a new calculation of what needs to be cut from our already much changed lives. And there’s no-one to share the emotional load – no-one who loves her as I do, who shoulders half the worries or shares the many joys and milestones.
And, of course, we are grieving. We will always be grieving.
Yet I’m lucky. I have a well paid job, with heaps of flexibility. I work long hours but I can do a lot of them after my daughter goes to bed or while she’s at weekend or after school activities (I’m pretending to watch every basketball shot while secretly writing this essay in the notes function on my phone). I can work from home a couple of days so she’s not in before- and after-school care for up to 20 hours a week. I can do all this because I established a career before I became a mum.
Believe me, I count my blessings.
Because most single mums aren’t so lucky. A few become sole parents by choice, but more often it’s through abandonment or bereavement. Most have their kids at a much younger age than I did, so they haven’t established a career they have some control over, with an above-average salary: they’re juggling casual shifts at minimum wage jobs that they must fit around their kids’ needs. Most are living in private rental accommodation with ever-escalating costs and no security. It’s hard enough to be a sole parent without struggling in grinding poverty.
So the Albanese Government’s decision this week to restore Parenting Payment Single to sole parents until their youngest child turns 14 was the element of this budget that made me weep with relief.
I’m not on the payment myself – I wouldn’t still have a mortgaged home if I were – but for around 57,000 sole parents, 52,000 of whom are women, and 110,000 kids whose households will be moved off JobSeeker, the increase of over $175 a fortnight is life-changing and long overdue.
It largely reverses a policy enacted by John Howard in 2006 as part of his disastrous Welfare to Work programme. As part of this punitive approach to social security, and at the same time as increasing family tax benefit for households with a stay-at-home-mum, Howard decreed that single parents would be “incentivised” to look for paid work when their youngest child turned 6, and pushed onto the much lower unemployment benefit and when that child turned 8. In typical Howard style, he masked the impact of this cruel and ideological policy by “grandfathering” the payment for anyone already in receipt of the PPS. It was nakedly ideological: if you “choose” to have a baby without a man, from now on you’ll be punished.
It was perhaps the greatest mistake and betrayal of women by the Gillard Government when, in pursuit of a fabled budget surplus, it ended the grandfathering of the PPS changes and pushed tens of thousands of single parent families into abject poverty overnight – infamously, on the same day she gave her lauded misogyny speech to the Parliament.
Then-cabinet minister Anthony Albanese was rumoured to be so incensed by this decision that he considered quitting the front bench. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that now-Prime Minister Albanese, famously raised by a single mother on sickness benefits, has moved in his first full budget to fix that mistake.
Credit must go here to the remarkable Terese Edwards who, as the head of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, has fought for this change for well over a decade. Thanks also to Anne Summers, who used her considerable influence with the government to push this through, and to Sam Mostyn and other members of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, which made it a core recommendation of its advice to the government this year. (Read Terese’s recent article for BroadAgenda here.)
It’s undoubtedly the centrepiece of what is arguably the most women- friendly budget in Australian history.
As well as an increase in their fortnightly income support payments, single parents moving off JobSeeker and onto the PPS will be able to earn an extra $569.10 per fortnight, plus an extra $24.60 per additional child, before their payment stops.
Alongside this decision is the move to scrap the punitive ParentsNext program that forced the mothers of pre-school children to engage in meaningless activities to demonstrate that they “deserved” income support. Good riddance to such a nasty, ineffective program.
There is also additional money to support the National Pan to End Violence against Women and Children, bringing the total committed to women’s safety since October last year to $2.29 billion.
And there’s an historic commitment of $11.3 billion to give a 15% pay rise to aged care workers – almost 90% of whom are women, and who receive among the lowest wages for some of the most important work in our society. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of residential aged care residents are women, too.
This is all underpinned by a huge investment in early childhood education and care – lifting the rebate to 90% for low and middle income households and investing another $72.4 million in skills development for early childhood education and care workers – again, more than 90% of whom are women.
All these measures will make a material difference to the lives of Australian women – especially single mums. That’s not to say that life as a sole parent on income support will become easy: the PPS itself is still a payment below any measure of the poverty line. But combined with increased rent assistance, cheaper childcare, the removal of some punitive welfare measures and a significant lift in the amount they can earn before losing benefits – coupled with better paid job prospects in the care economy – this is a budget that has deliberately stopped punishing single mothers and their kids, and restored meaningful support to help them build better futures.
All in all, the outcome of the 2023 budget means it’s just possible than even single mums without the great privileges I have will also, finally, be able to start to count their blessings.
- Emma with her late husband, David. Picture: Supplied