Observations from the sole parenting front

When I first entered the dark satanic mills of parenthood, I spent a good deal of time stomping around shouting, ‘This job should be unionised!’ The hours are terrible, the demands unreasonable, there are numerous occupational health and safety breaches, you are always ‘on call’ and its really hard to understand what your boss wants. The pay is horrific too – I was lucky enough to have a few months of paid maternity leave, but if you broke it that down into an hourly rate, I would’ve been getting about $3 per hour. And when I became a single mother and a recipient of the Sole Parent’s Benefit, that dropped to around $2.03 per hour.

As a relatively mature childbearer, my relationship to labour had been formed by the structures of paid work. It took a while for it to dawn on me that childrearing is not work at all. It’s a form of emotional and physical labour that cannot be explained or managed by the structures of employment. The amount of effort that you put into parenting is highly unlikely to be paid at a reasonable hourly rate.

This is a problem in a world where the care of children is being increasingly commodified. Institutional childcare is subsidised by the government, and the progressive parties all lobby for increased availability of childcare, both for children under school age, and in before-care, after-care, and school-holiday programs. But the care given at childcare centres and schools is markedly different from parenting. There’s a radically different child to adult ratio. Structure and routine are emphasised, in order to make jobs manageable for the poorly paid workers. ‘Educational’ activities abound, in order to make sure that the children’s key performance indicators can be easily reported to the children’s immediate supervisors – their parents. Children are encouraged to conform to a program, and form connections with a range of interchangeable people through the development of a set of easily activated social skills. It is, in other words, a great training ground for working in a corporation.

Is that too cynical? Maybe. But the vast majority of parents know that while school and good quality childcare can be a great place for learning and socialisation for children, it is not the best way to look after children most of the time. School holidays and schooldays are the length they are for a reason. It is too stressful and tiring for children to be in this sort of group care all the time. They need to spend unstructured time with their family and friends. This is why most parents cobble together ramshackle structures of work and care that minimise their child’s attendance at such institutions, and do so at considerable cost to their careers and finances.

But this ability is becoming increasingly unavailable to recipients of the Sole Parent Benefit, of whom around 90 per cent are women and around 100 per cent are poor. When the Whitlam government first introduced this benefit in 1973, it was available until your youngest child was eighteen. The age came down to sixteen in the late 80s, down again to age eleven or twelve in 2002, and recent changes to the Centrelink benefits structure have lowered that age to eight. After this, parents are put on to Newstart (which is around $150 per fortnight less), but recipients of sole parent benefits are also required to look for work if they are not working at least fifteen hours per week, every week, by the time their child turns six.

Perhaps you could mount an argument that a child is able to look after themselves for short periods of time when they are sixteen, or even twelve, but if you routinely left a six-year-old to their own devices while you were at work, you would be deemed negligent. So it is assumed that your child will be in institutional care, unless you have a job that you can do within school hours, within the school year.

To get this sort of work on a permanent part-time basis is highly unlikely. So casual work, which is by far the most available form of part-time employment anyway, is the one most accessible to the sole parents who are quite reasonably trying to reduce the time their child spends in institutional care. This is exactly the work pattern I follow: I have a hodge-podge of sessional teaching and freelance work that I can do while my seven-year-old daughter is asleep or at school, preferably jobs that I can do from home so that I can combine domestic and paid labour. I know that I am privileged, by the way, in that I can access this sort of work. Sometimes this work creeps out of school hours, and I do sometimes access out-of-school care, but more often I rely on the informal childcare of friends and relations. This means that, like many recipients of Centrelink benefits, I rely on those payments sometimes, but not all the time.

Because of this, I am called into Job Network interviews where I’m told I need to replace my casual job portfolio with a permanent part-time job. Surprisingly, neither they nor I can conjure up a job like this – and so I am told that I should put my seven-year-old daughter into school holiday programs, before-care and after-care in order to better facilitate my search for this mythical job.

These changes to the Sole Parent’s Benefit are often imagined to simply be a matter of cost-cutting. But there’s another agenda, which is that the government prefers to pay for institutional care rather than personalised care. This can be seen through the rate at which the government subsidises childcare, out-of-school-hours care and holiday care. Unless you earn more than $145 000 per year, some of your childcare will be subsidised at the rate of $3.39 per hour for each school-aged child through Childcare Benefit. They are happy to do this for up to 50 hours of care per week, as long as the parent is working, training or studying. There is also Childcare Rebate, which is not means tested, pays up to $7500 and covers 50 per cent of one’s out-of-pocket expenses. On the other hand, the Sole Parents Benefit pays around $2.03 per hour, and so that $7500 would buy 3685.92 hours (almost 22 weeks) of personalised care by a sole parent at pension rates.

The cutbacks to sole parent benefits are not just a result of the demonisation of single mothers, though we are an easy target because no man of calibre loves us enough to share their money with us on an ongoing basis. It is also a result of a larger tendency to fudge parental care and institutional care. But they are not the same thing. Making happy, relaxed, engaged, independent adults does not rely on wether their parent or parents are smart or formally educated or even particularly rich. It doesn’t rely on wether there is one parent or two or four, and before you throw statistics at me, I’ll just point out that correlation is not causation. It does rely on whether a child’s parent or parents have time for their children, and are free from horrible grinding poverty and the humiliating routines of fulfilling Centrelink pipedreams. It relies on that child having at least one caregiver being able to express care in a thousand daily ways, which could not possibly be available in an institution.

Helen Addison-Smith

Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland's first e-book Women's Work. She's a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Evil Pundit would prefer his children raised by robots he doesnt need to emotionally interact with I assume.

  2. The point you make in the final paragraph about what it takes to make happy relaxed and independent adults says it all. This business is false economy at the worst. Traumatised children grow up to be traumatised adults who fill Housing Commission complexes and are unable to work or be independent. Children are owed a caring childhood and stressing their parents will not achieve that.

    I am not a single mother or even a mother but I feel so strongly about this issue it will be influencing my vote at the next election. I don’t believe I’ve ever voted anything but Labor in the past, but I can’t this time in all conscience.

  3. Re “To get this sort of work on a permanent part-time basis is highly unlikely.” – while many government agencies, educational institutions and large corporations now take affirmative action taken when it comes to employing women, indigenous people, etc., I have never heard of anywhere that has a policy of having a minimum percentage of part time positions within an organisation. If part time work was taken more seriously by employers it would make life better for everyone.

    1. I totally agree with you Jane. Without these sort of measures, many working parents are reliant on the goodwill of our employers, and that seems precarious, to say the least.

  4. Should ‘wether’ be ‘whether’ throughout the final paragraph, or is the paronomasia intended?

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