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Single mothers and the sexual contract

By Petra Bueskens - posted Thursday, 21 February 2013

Ten years ago I was a single parent (my oldest daughter was 8 then) and we lived well; she had after school hobbies, we ate fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as all the essentials: pasta, rice, cheese, meat, bread and eggs. We had nice, if not expensive, clothes and I managed, just, to pay for petrol and car maintenance for the relatively long commutes to my Melbourne job 2 days per week. I was also studying full-time. We lived in a beautiful two bedroom rented house with a lovely large backyard (the compromise here was that there was almost no heating). My daughter had a cat, chooks and a rabbit. I paid my bills, mostly on time.

Although I would have liked to eat organic produce, and drive a decent car (both were far more expensive than I could afford), I always thought our steady supply of avocados was a sign of prosperity; indeed of my ability to live well even as a single mother.

Why am I telling you this? Not because our activities or diet were particularly interesting or unusual; I'm telling you simply because they were possible. As a single mother of one I could afford a reasonable standard of living. I could support myself and my child properly, if frugally.


This was possible because I received the single parent pension (including family tax benefit), worked part-time, and got a small but regular contribution from my daughter's father. I lived in the country (Daylesford), which reduced my living expenses. I had supportive family and a community of friends with whom I shared care.

This combination of work, study and care might sound rather ordinary - and it was a decade ago - however under changes to Australian welfare legislation passed in October 2012 and brought into effect on January 1st, 2013 this basic but functional lifestyle will be out of reach for most single parents of 8 year olds.

Under the new "Fair Incentives to Work" legislation all recipients of Parenting Payment Single (PPS) whose children have turned 8 have been moved to the basic unemployment benefit "Newstart", more commonly known as "the dole". This has affected around 100,000 sole parents, almost all of whom are women. In real terms it means a loss of between $60 to $110 per week for families who are already under the poverty line.

Ostensibly this legislation is about moving the "chronically unemployed" into work to facilitate social integration and financial autonomy – both laudable goals; however, given the chronic lack of "family friendly" (read: mother friendly) jobs available and the stringent conditions under which recipients are able to earn money (any earnings beyond $31 a week are taxed at 40 cents in the dollar!) this is not going to bring about economic independence or social inclusion. On the contrary, severe stress, mental health problems and social isolation are the concomitants of poverty, perhaps especially working poverty.

As many commentators have noted, Newstart is a woefully inadequate payment that has not risen in real terms in twenty years. Even the business council have pointed out that being on Newstart may be prohibitive for getting a job. "Trying to survive on $35 a day is likely to erode the capacity of individuals to present themselves well or maintain their readiness for work." In reality, this legislation is about saving the government $700 million at the expense of the most economically vulnerable group of women and children. It is chasing surplus at the expense of welfare.

For many mothers this financial devolution is bringing about debilitating and demoralising change. As the Australian Council of Social Services website states: "Moving house, giving up the family car, cancelling children's sport, relinquishing the family pet, skipping meals and not filling medication scripts are some of the harsh outcomes" of the new legislation. On the "Parenting Payment for parents - NOT Newstart" facebook page the testimonies are heart-wrenching.


Women balancing very low incomes, complex and often contradictory time demands, employer prejudices, irresponsible, abusive and absent ex-partners, sole responsibility for child care, and inflexible work schedules are wondering – quite rightly! - how they will cope. As one mother put it,

I too am much worse off now that reality has really kicked in ... this is my 3rd payment that is $200 less than before and it is really biting now! Had an anxiety attack in the supermarket when [I] was $20 over budget (which was only $50 for the week anyway), crying at the drop of a hat, not sleeping well and only paying half my rent.

And another:

Finally had the courage to do my budget. Without budgeting for school camps, hair-cuts, clothes and any other essentials I'm still in the red. I've cut so much out and I can't see where I can cut anymore ... Now I can't see any quality of life to be had.

And another:

I have lost $191 a fortnight as a single mother who's youngest is over 8. I am very lucky in that I have been renting the same house for 8 years and my landlord prefers to have a reliable tenant (rent has never been late) than to charge a fortune. So many others in my position pay $100 a week more than I do. I am struggling so badly since these changes and am buying less and less food etc as I simply don't have money for much. I never had a lot ... no single parent does but now we are really suffering. Apparently the children of single parents shouldn't expect any kind of life other than poverty and apparently they don't really need 3 meals a day or a roof over their heads. I would be interested to see the suicide rates since these changes have happened. It has crossed my mind and I am a strong person. So many others are in a far worse position than I am, and before anyone judges me ... I work and have done in the same crap job for 7 years. Lucky it's a kitchen and I am able to bring home leftovers for my kids and pets. Only way we can eat every day ...

Much has been written about the fact that this legislation will tip thousands of families further into poverty; that Labour is turning against its own policies in supporting what was in fact Howard's Welfare to Work bill; that Newstart is well below the poverty line making life very difficult for a single person, let alone a single parent; that this new round of cuts marks the end of the welfare state and so on.

What is mentioned less is that this is a women's human rights issue because it essentially makes it very difficult to leave a marriage (or be left or never marry in the first place) if you are a woman with children. And here I also include committed de facto relationships. It means that having a breadwinner - that seemingly passé term - is all but essential. While there are exceptions to this rule among middle-class women with good jobs, if you are a typical woman – and by this I mean one whose attachment to the labour market has declined as a result of having children – then you had better stay married (or partnered) or face brutal inequality. If we follow this point through to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that this removes women's authentic choice to marry or remain married if the alternative is poverty. The point is women need economic and social support to raise children because mothering is work.

Raising and nurturing children takes time, lots of it. It also requires flexibility, the capacity to be on call in the event of illness, or special events (book week, school concerts, excursions and parties); it means being present before and after school and doing an enormous amount of organising and ferrying; for pre-schoolers it means being fully available in and around child care and kinder; with babies its round the clock care. This does not mix well with most jobs that demand primary commitment, and nor is there good policy in place to effectively support parents having jobs in and around their child care priorities. While there is policy to support staying employed while becoming a parent, there isn't policy that supports prioritising parenting over paid work (as most mothers do) and staying employed.

This is also why single parents - and here I am referring specifically to mothers - find it harder to work than partnered parents – in point of fact, married men have wives who do the lion's share of this work, and married women have the economic support of husbands to reduce their work hours (which most in fact want); they also have partners to share some of the difficult logistics of combining paid work with caregiving responsibilities. Single mothers have neither of these supports and yet are now expected to compete on the same terms as all other "unemployed" individuals. This is grossly unjust.

This legislation creates two tiers of mothers: the married and the unmarried. These two groups have always been marked by relative economic advantage and disadvantage, but what was once a discrepancy is now a chasm. Without a husband (or a committed partner) a woman with a dependent child is now in a very precarious economic and social position in this country. If she is not one of the tiny fraction of women who have well-paid, full-time professional jobs that they have maintained across the transition to parenthood, then she – that is most mothers and potential mothers you know - is at serious risk of poverty in the event of separation or divorce.

So why is this a human rights issue – or to put it oxymoronically – why is this a women's human rights issue? Because in a liberal-democratic society, which is defined by, and rightly takes pride in, individual rights for all, this makes some individuals – the childfree and the married – "more equal than others". It means that the a priori assumption of freedom and equality for all is not maintained for those (female) individuals who are raising children outside the institution of marriage – and this includes those who have left abusive marriages, unequal marriages, loveless marriages, as well as those who have been left by their husbands or partners, and those who have never married.

Given the high rate of marital breakdown in modern societies – precisely because we value individual rights and choice – this presents an acute dilemma. If marriage is the only safety net for the majority of women and close to half of all marriages end in divorce then, as the saying goes, most women (during the childrearing years of their lives) "are only a man away from poverty".

This of course is part of a deeper problem that our social contract is underscored with a "sexual contract" presupposing a gendered division of labour. For all the talk of gender equality – as Professor Stephanie Coontz' recent article in the New York Times clearly demonstrates, structural barriers remain fundamental to work/life decisions that are routinely defined as "choice". It is still the case the men and women divide around childcare and paid work in ways that seriously disadvantage women economically. Again, under the protective cover of marriage, this ugly fact of our social order is kept well concealed. It is in fact, the situation of the single mother that reveals the true status of women: in our supposedly free society a woman who "chooses" to be a mother must have a partner or face poverty. This is our current sexual contract that sits at the bedrock and thereby defines our social contract.

The conservative critic Francis Fukuyama has called single mother welfare dependence "bureauogomy" – where there is effectively a marriage between the woman and the state. Here patriarchy is generalised rather than specific. It is true that single mothers are the wives of the nation, raising close to a quarter of Australia's children - the next generation of citizens and tax-payers if we want to put human life in fiscal terms - except the state has just transmogrified into a deadbeat dad. It has abandoned single mothers and their children to fend for themselves. This is a travesty.

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About the Author

Petra Bueskens is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. Prior to this she lectured in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University (2002-2009). Since 2009 she has been working as a Psychotherapist in private practice. She is the editor of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia and the founder of PPMD Therapy. Her research interests include motherhood, feminism, sexuality, social theory, psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory and practice. She has published articles on all these subjects in both scholarly and popular fora. Her edited book Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives was published by Demeter Press in 2014.

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