Words || Angela Heathcote
A month ago I woke up to my Facebook newsfeed full of praise for a speech Jacqui Lambie gave to the Senate on what life is really like for single mothers surviving on welfare. Up until this point I didn’t think I shared even one common value with this woman, who had just a few weeks beforehand humiliated herself by attempting to explain the Islamic faith to a Muslim woman on ABC’s Q&A. Lambie managed to sum up the emotional experience of living on welfare in one phrase that I am anxious to use when describing my own mum’s difficulties, but ultimately rings true. “It is not a choice,” Lambie said, rather “It is shameful and it is embarrassing”. Only two years before becoming unemployed, my mum managed to complete her Certificate IV in Old Age and Disability Care that allowed her to advance in her nursing career, which she has been pursuing since she was 25. To say my mum was ashamed to be going on welfare at the age of 45 due to her circumstances, while accurate, doesn’t begin to acknowledge what this did to her self-worth.
Early in 2005 my dad was diagnosed with parathyroid cancer. After years and years of drifting in and out of hospital, in 2009 my mum decided that my Dad would receive home care in the last few months of his life. A palliative care nurse would come in to bathe him and to give him his morphine, while my mum would become his primary carer throughout the day. During this time my mum also worked from 10pm to 7am, 4-5 nights a week at a nursing home nearby. At this point she’d been working there for almost five years and had become relatively comfortable and prepared to look after my brother and myself from this single income. After almost two months of this excruciating schedule, my mum accidentally fell asleep on one of her night shifts, was demoted, and then after my Dad finally passed away in June, the emotional stress took a bigger toll on her work ethic, and she was let go.
Each year, it seems as if someone has something controversial to say about single mothers. During the recent Western Australia state election, comments surfaced from 2015 in which One Nation candidate David Archibald called for welfare to single mothers to cease entirely, while adding that they are “too lazy to attract and hold a mate”. Pauline Hanson, a single mother herself, doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to standing up for single mothers either. Her notorious maiden speech from last September left no stone unturned, managing to offend Indigenous people, immigrants, climate change scientists, and of course, single mothers, who she implored to “get a job and start taking responsibility for your own actions”. Hell, in 2014 Cory Bernardi even decided to point the finger at single mums for an increased crime rate, stating, “There is a temptation to equate all family structures as being equal or relative. Why then the levels of criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls who are brought up in single-parent families, more often than not headed by a single mother?”
Ironically, quite the opposite question has been posed by the likes of Lucille Iremonger and Malcolm Gladwell, who explore why exactly there are so many successful children who have lost parents early on. In Stop at Nothing, a short and concise biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Annabel Crabb invokes both these authors in an attempt to understand how Turnbull found the “advantage in disadvantage”. Both Turnbull and countless others from the front bench of the Opposition, are products of single parenting. And just to name drop further, so is Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, the stigma of single motherhood, and notions of incapability and inadequacy directed towards single mothers by those completely out of touch, is debilitating. For the first two years after my dad’s passing, my mum refused to allow her extended family, my brother or myself know of any financial or emotional difficulties she was facing until it was too late. She would tell us she had a new job only for our neighbour to then unknowingly slip up and inform us she had been languishing at their house for hours of the day, too scared to admit she needed help with money. Eventually, this routine got so bad that the bank showed up on our doorstep and told us that we had a month to move out of our family home. While my mum now describes this event as emotionally necessary, for me it was quite hard to deal with. Even after we started renting a house my mum continued to fault on payments. Since 2013 we’ve moved between three different homes.
My mum’s job prospects were further burdened by her lack of a full driver’s license. Despite failing her Ps test on four separate occasions, the moment she received her license was a major turning point in our lives. She was able to get a job with a home care nursing company, rent a nicer house and put food on the table. And by food I mean veggie noodles from the local Chinese restaurant, as she remains a tragic cook.
Single mums, or single parents, have varying circumstances. Often enough, life doesn’t pan out the way we want it to and we have to completely re-imagine our futures. Work is something my mum takes immense pride in; it’s the base for much of her self-worth. Being on welfare isn’t a period of time she likes to remember. In fact, when I ask her if there are any positives to being on welfare she resolutely says no, and immediately attempts to escape my attention and questioning. I thought maybe she would say it gave her some necessary grieving time, but this simply isn’t the case. For her, it was a time of extreme paralysis, emotionally and economically. When Lambie says, “It’s bloody tough”, she isn’t lying.