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Single mothers managing work, self and family

By Elspeth McInnes - posted Monday, 9 May 2005

The topic of managing work, self and family arises from the ever-increasing emphasis on the economy and economic life as the only valued and visible expression of human activity. It is also a gendered dilemma which rests on men’s and women’s relationships to the unpaid work of reproduction and care provision and the mainstream economy.

The split between work and family was once distributed mainly on gendered lines, leaving women financially dependent on men’s earnings, and men separated from the hands-on unpaid work of cleaning, laundry, shopping, and personal care of infants and sick and aged relatives. Women’s increased participation in the paid workforce from the mid-1970s onwards has, to some extent, dismantled the rigid separation of gendered roles.

Women and mothers now expect to work, and fathers are increasingly expressing a desire to spend more time caring for their children. In practice, working hours for many full-time workers have been steadily increasing and men have not been overly enthusiastic about actually doing domestic work, but women’s growing presence in the workforce is emptying the population of unpaid care providers, or stretching their time ever more thinly.


Unpaid care work is economically invisible, unrewarded and unvalued, yet the personal relationships forged in unpaid care work - with our partners, our children, our parents - are the bedrock of our personal and social lives. Without the care and work of another human-being, none of us would make it to adulthood. Every adult is an expression of endless parental hours of feeding, soothing, changing, washing, teaching, helping and protecting, and as old age and illness strike, there is again a need for many hours of care provision.

Instead of presuming that intrafamilial care will always “naturally” exist, policy-makers need to be valuing such care as a human survival resource, recognising that just as we need clean air and clean water, we also need the personal care of other human-beings, particularly in infancy, sickness and old age. Instead of recognising and valuing unpaid care and those who receive and provide it, and ensuring that the circumstances which enable people to provide and receive care are supported, there has been a steady restriction of support to targeted contexts of care, particularly impacting on low-income groups.

The push to downgrade unpaid care work has been expressed in the policy momentum for “welfare reform” which has gradually expanded the range of requirements for workforce activity being imposed on people claiming parenting payments. Despite the caring activity embedded in the parental role and the higher demands of only having one available parent, the Government has signalled plans for increased demands for “mutual obligation” and “workforce requirements” for single parents of school-age children.

Five to twelve-year-old children of parents who have separated face new restrictions on access to parental care. The proposed welfare changes signal expectations that primary school age children with one parent can do with less access to parental care and will instead have to access child care services which may or may not meet their needs, and may or may not be available at the times and places parents and children need it. Further, the “mutual obligation” framework abolishes the capacity of single mothers to self-manage their paid work and family care demands in favour of a bureaucracy-led prescription of required conduct.

A contradiction in the proposed new workforce demands on single mothers is the positive support offered to partnered mothers to stay out of the workforce and care for their children. Family tax benefit part B payments are not income-tested for single income families, but reduce sharply once the family has a second earner. The sum effect is that partnered mothers face high effective marginal tax rates if they enter the paid workforce. Again this contradiction emphasises that while children with two parents are being supported to have a parent providing full-time unpaid care, children with only one available parent face restricted parental care through increased paid workforce requirements.

Apart from the evident discrimination against children of separated parents, the policy approach also fails to account for the reality that the population of single mothers is drawn primarily from the population of married mothers. Encouraging married mothers to stay out of paid work while simultaneously forcing single mothers into paid work means that mothers and children face completely different demands, depending on whether they have a partner. The least consideration appears to be whether children’s interests are served by imposing particular requirements on different groups of mothers.


Maintaining a balance between paid work and family needs is even harder when there is relatively little protection for casual workers, who can be called on at odd hours at short notice, and who have no leave entitlements or job protections if they or their children are sick. Income insecurity and mutual obligation requirements can leave mothers having to choose between their children’s emotional and physical needs and the family’s economic survival. The care needs of children of all ages tend to rise during and after parental separation as the transition into a single parent household is typically one of upheaval for the family. Often there has been a period of deteriorating relationships before separation, while the actual separation often involves a change of residence and a change in household members. In separations involving family violence there is the added chaos and distress of traumatising violence, and the need to relocate away from known neighbourhood and family and school supports.

The “care squeeze” is being felt across the population as Australians work increasingly longer hours, but middle and high income permanent workers have many more opportunities to restructure their working hours, purchase alternative care, exercise leave entitlements and delegate tasks to subordinates. Men in the full-time paid workforce still typically delegate their family care demands to their partners, forcing many mothers to fit their earning work around their unpaid work. Mothers predominantly cluster in low-paid low-skill casual jobs in the services sector where they provide a flexible, on call workforce.

When mothers are partnered the shared demands of earning and family care mean more choices around the division of labour between the couple. Despite the higher demands and restricted resources of single mothers, it is single mothers and their children who experience the most dramatic restrictions on their opportunities to find the balance between paid work and family, let alone time for themselves.

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About the Author

Dr Elspeth McInnes is a Lecturer at the University of South Australia, Convenor of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children and a member of the ACOSS Executive. Dr McInnes' most recent research has focused on mothers' transition into lone parent family structures, exploring the impact of violence on mothers and children during separation and their subsequent adaptation and access to community resources and to both market and non-market income.

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