Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life was to leave my husband with four children in tow. This was early 1981 and there were few supports for single mothers apart from family.
As it was, both my parents had died when I was young and my two sisters, along with the rest of my extended family, lived on the other side of the continent. As a relative newcomer to Melbourne, my friends were my husband’s. I had to be fully self-reliant.
I had felt for some time that I needed to separate from my husband. His whole view of life was so vastly different from mine. I worried constantly about the way his values impacted on the children. But I had time to plan for the future as a single parent.
I had been a full time mother and homemaker as most married women of my age were at that time. When my husband began refusing to provide our daughters with the same so-called privileges as our sons “because girls are not worth spending money on” I announced that I would get a job so that all the children could be treated equally.
Surprisingly my husband didn’t object – mind you, I’d undertaken to pay for a cleaner, child minding, etc.
Job hunting was my first eye-opener as to how society viewed single mothers. Prospective employers, after showing initial interest, would immediately end the interview on learning that I was separating from my husband: how could I possibly manage a job and care for children?
No flexible hours, limited sick leave and so on. So I learned to assure the interviewer that I had the full support of my husband who was marvellous around the house and we’d get home help, child minders etc. And that basically I was just keen to get back into the workforce.
Looking for rentals was the next eye-opener.
Stating that the rental would be in my name, not my husband’s immediately caused a barrier to be put up. A woman on her own with four children? She’d default in no time! Eventually I got a house that the owner advertised himself, not through an agent; he clearly didn’t know all the questions to ask! Luckily it was a house that suited us well.
So yes, I eventually got a job that I thought would provide enough financially even though things would be very tight. But before I had actually left the marital home I’d learned about single mothers: apparently they were unreliable, couldn’t manage their finances, wouldn’t be able to give their all (or even their best) to a job and would frequently be unavailable due to a child’s needing attention. Or worse, have a sad crew of neglected children.
Then there was the shock-horror within the broader work-related community when I left my husband. Whilst several colleagues, both men and women, were very supportive, and indeed, helped me to move, many became far less friendly.
I picked up the vibe that I was no longer quite acceptable. I had to be some sort of loose woman. Some men tried to ‘cash in’ on that assumption. A management group met without me to discuss what, if anything, should be done to avoid any negative impact on my work. Forget about the negative impact on me that such attitudes had. Eventually, however, when clearly neither I nor my children fell apart, and my work didn’t suffer, raised eyebrows and whispers ceased.
My husband tried to deny financial support for his kids. He wanted to punish me but gave no thought to what that would mean for the children. He dragged out negotiations for two years, during which he did not provide a cent in child support. And because I was still technically married, I was not eligible for any government assistance. There was no money for after-school care or home help. Now, wages can at least be garnished from the earnings of a parent for child support although that can still be manipulated by the defaulting parent.
My husband’s savings and superannuation were then off-limits in a property settlement, so it was basically about the family home to which I’d significantly contributed. When I eventually received my half and could look to buying a house, the final overt discrimination due to my single mother status came into play. I would need to get a male guarantor in order to take out a loan. I found a willing friend who’s salary was less than mine and who’s employment was no more secure than mine. That didn’t seem to matter – he was not a single mother.
There still exists great misconceptions about single mothers. Recently, someone in my close circle expressed amazement that a male relative was about to ‘take on a single mother with three children’. I pointed out that I had been a single mother with four children yet had male friends who would happily have ‘taken me on’. Tellingly, he was surprised that I referred to myself as a single mother – he couldn’t think of me as being “like them”.
Where are the children in all this? Discrimination against single mothers puts obstacles in a path along which they are already doing hard yards. They need support and every bit that is removed or downgraded impacts badly on the children. Our policy makers need to remember that.