What Single Mums Really Need From Government

Julie Boyd has an extensive career across business, education and community sectors. She is a psychologist, educator, mentor, coach and author. She was  a teacher, principal and senior education leader prior to moving to the corporate sector and becoming a CEO, Managing Director and Board Chairperson. She  has won numerous business awards for innovation. She has also been a single mum for three decades and is eminently qualified to offer suggestions to governments about what is needed, what works for single mums, and what they can do to really help.

I became a single mum thirty years ago. At that time feminism was in full roar and my role models were people like Anne Summers and Gloria Steinem. Women who believed that despite all of the massive inequalities we were facing systemically, it was up to us, as women, to create our own careers, and lives, so I did.

I freely admit there was significant help along the way that I desperately needed from others, as I had no immediate family close by. For that assistance I will be eternally grateful. I did, however, need to be innovative, persistent, clear about what I was trying to achieve, and protective of my kids. There are some key lessons for governments in my story which may help them figure out how best to help single mums now to build successful lives for themselves and their kids.

What I did was raise two wonderful, independent, human beings, who care about their families and the environment, have good jobs, and are now responsible for raising more beautiful human beings. I also managed a career, travelled internationally, bought, renovated, and sold homes and set up a small but secure basis for my own future.

The first challenge I faced as a single mum was cash flow. Like many others I had seen this coming for a while and had made the decision to plan for what I saw as inevitable. Financial independence was crucial, and a cake tin of small change eventually became a personal bank account where every available dollar could be stored.

Despite my planning, the final break was sudden and awful. I only had a miniscule amount in the bank, not sufficient to sustain us for more than a few weeks. As my babies were one and three years old, I was deeply concerned about the choice between work and caring for them. We lived with friends for the first few weeks after we ‘escaped’ but that was unsustainable. I had been teaching and had taken twelve months leave without pay. I was grateful that, unlike my favourite aunt who had been forced to resign from teaching when she married (god forbid that schoolkids should see her pregnant), I had the ‘luxury’ of being able to take 12 months ‘off’.  I knew I needed to go back to work to support my family, and, thank goodness, my position had been held for me. How I was going to manage in the interim was the question.

Lesson 1 for governments: Don’t assume that every mum wants to stay home. Single mums do need to feed, clothe and house their kids and most are happy to work outside home if they can afford to. There’s a fine balance between a system which can be abused, and needing to protect kids who need a decent start. I get that, but don’t make the kids pay.

I was also grateful that a minimal amount, $30 per week from memory was available from the government as a ‘supporting parent’s pension’ for someone with two kids, which allowed me to make it to the end of the year in order to give my children an extra six months of mum at home, and my school to plan for my return at the beginning of the new year, with minimal disruption to students.

Lesson 2: A minimal amount to live on is required to raise healthy bodies and minds for little ones. Stressing about whether you can provide a meal, or basic human needs does not breed healthy families.

My second challenge was to put a roof over my children’s heads. At that time banks would not lend money to women, and would not even consider single women. I had no superannuation at all, it was not available to women at the time, the assumption being we would be in happy families for the rest of our lives supported by our husbands. My ex-husband kept happily accumulating his super while I was at home with the kids, and in the eventual divorce settlement that was not allowed to be considered as ‘that was for his retirement.’

I’m not in the habit of taking no for an answer and, despite being on a pension, haunted local bank managers to try for a loan as some friends had a house they wanted to sell, and I wanted to buy. It was a ‘fixer upper’ par excellence, in fact it had been condemned. But a builder mate had told me it was structurally sound, and I had a band of friends who were willing to help. For the few years previously I’d helped several with the construction of their mud-brick homes, so there was some expertise to be mined there. Finally, I found a new, young, progressive bank manager who actually listened. Not only did he listen, he agreed to give me a loan on my return to work based on my own salary (even though my Dad still had to sign as a guarantor). As I was his first female loan, he took a personal interest in the progress of renovations, and occasionally mucked in to help clean bricks.

Lesson 3 for governments: Mums are a good bet for loans. The micro-loan programs established by the World Bank in third world countries provide a model worth considering for low cost housing.

My next challenge, child care. How to manage a toddler and one just about to start three year old kindergarten at a preschool some distance away from my work. At that time there were no formal childcare centres anywhere, to my knowledge, so this became a multi-step process.

First, I had a key discussion with a group of mates. Each of them was lamenting the face that none of us had immediate family available locally for support, so we‘d better do something about that ourselves.  So we agreed to a child swapping system, in effect, deliberately building an extended family for our kids.  As there were four families involved what this meant was that one weekend in four, one family would have all the kids (ten in total aged 1 to 6) in one house. That gave each set of adults two days and one night as a break. It also gave the ten kids an opportunity to live as part of a large family of siblings, with access to different house rules and different parenting styles, and they loved it. The four families consisted of me (single mum), two pairs of mum and dad married parents, and one unmarried couple who wanted to have kids and were happy to practice on ours.  We ultimately set up the first child care centre in Victoria, a ‘Neighbourhood Centre,’ which is another story in itself. The kids are still close thirty years down the track.

Lesson 4 for governments: Informal family care can be inexpensive but we need to be creative about how that is achieved.

I was deeply grateful at that time that the Whitlam government had funded my first university degree. Not having to be saddled with the crippling HECS debts that my children now face, provided an immense step up for me, as did learning to live on a studentship, which provided me with the princely sum of $22 per week. The college I was living in cost $20 per week so while the residual $2 didn’t go far with food, or anything else, it taught us some indelible lessons in budgeting, as well as sharing – everything. (information, food, clothes, accommodation).

Lesson 5 for governments: Single mums need an education which will lead to them getting a job. Why not bring back a ‘Studentship’ scheme for them whereby they get an education, an assured job at the end of that with some stability for a couple of years until they get established.

This week Holden have decided to ‘shed’ more than 500 jobs, a company that has received over $2billion in subsidies from governments. Why not make subsidies conditional? Why not require Holden to provide a low budget car to every single mum who needs one to transport kids or to get to a job or job interviews.

Lesson 6 for governments: Single mums need transport and if they live in the country, that, unfortunately means a car.

It’s unfortunate that the debate about single mums has been reduced to a simple argument about dollars. Raising kids who will make a productive, and positive contribution to our society and their community is more complex than that.

While governments cannot ‘fix’ everything, throwing money at a problem is not the only way to go. We need to be much more creative in the way all resources, including human resources are used if we are to build humane, productive future generations.

Julie Boyd April 2013