My son’s father decided to leave our eight-year relationship about eight months ago. The decision has thrust me into financial insecurity, which I have experienced at various points in my life, but this time it feels very different, because this time I’m responsible not just for myself, but my son as well.
Since my son was born almost five years ago, I have been his primary caregiver. At the moment he is in childcare three days a week, and I run a small creative freelance business around my caring responsibilities to him. This has meant that I have, like so many women, sacrificed my superannuation and career/business progression to care for my son. While I have always felt that this was unfair, when my former partner and I were together, I told myself that we were both working towards something better for our family. I was caring for our son so that my partner could work full time and provide for us, and although I worried about my super, and I worried that my business wasn’t growing as fast as it could, I felt like his super would provide for us in retirement, and I could try to "catch up" on moving my business forward once my son started school.
Obviously, when you separate, this all changes. While the time that I have spent caring for my son is priceless, it has meant that I am now in a much more financially vulnerable position compared to my former partner. Since our son was born, he has managed to double his super and completely pay off his HECS debt, while my super has stagnated and indexation has meant my HECS debt has increased. There is a scheme that allows primary caregivers to share in some of their former spouse’s super after separated or divorced, which is fantastic, but it will never adequately financially compensate me for what I’ve sacrificed.
I recently took part in a workshop that was dealing with the various ways that women are financially disadvantaged, particularly by the super system we have in Australia, and the example they used to illustrate this was a woman who had worked part time after having children and then separated from her husband. It obviously hit home. The next time I spoke to my former partner, I talked about the workshop and how scared and angry it made me that women provide an incredibly valuable service to society by caring for children, and we are punished for it. His response was to tell me, basically, that my financial position was my own responsibility. I think is this one of the ways that the people in power (let’s face it, overwhelmingly men) convince themselves that the system is fair. As economist Richard Denniss says, the system advantages men, so why would they change or criticise it?
We invented superannuation. It’s the last vestiges of the male breadwinner harvester man model. It works well, for well-paid people like me who don’t take lots of time out of the workforce.Dr Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute
The separation has also meant that I am now receiving the single parenting payment from Centrelink. We are incredibly lucky to have this safety net system here in Australia, although after dealing with Centrelink for months now, I’m not convinced that they actually want anyone to access this system! Centrelink have to work with and provide services to the most vulnerable people in our community, but they are so underfunded and short-staffed that they do a woeful job of actually providing those services.
After my partner decided to leave the relationship, I sort advice from my single mum friends on how best to navigate the Centrelink system. You can apply for the single parenting payment while still living with your former partner (it’s called "separated under one roof") and I thought this might have been the best way to go for my former partner and I, but my single mum friends strongly advised me not to go down this route. They warned me that there would be a much higher chance of Centrelink rejecting my claim if I was still living with my former partner, and it would add weeks or months on to the process either way. Unable to rent an apartment until I had proof that I was receiving a regular Centrelink payment, I felt that my only choice was to pack my son and I up, and move in with my parents until my Centrelink payments started coming through. I’m lucky that I had this option, although my parents live an hour away from the suburb I was living, the suburb where my son’s childcare and my work are located, which obviously impacted on my job and all of my son’s normal routines.
When I applied for the payment, I was told that my claim would be processed in four to six weeks. The weeks and then months ticked by, my life on hold. By the time I was at the five week mark, I started calling Centrelink every week. As everyone knows, the wait times to get through to Centrelink are outrageous, I literally spent hours in those weeks waiting on the phone to Centrelink. Every time I got through to someone, I was told that they had a backlog of claims to process, and they would get to mine when they could. By week nine, I was getting desperate. I got on to a Single Mums Facebook group that I had joined and asked them if they knew of anything I could do to speed up the process. A few mums said that the only way for me to get my claim processed efficiently was to go down to my local office and cry. Honestly, I had to go in and humiliate myself in order to get my claim processed! It was just another kick in the teeth. So the next morning I took my son down to the local office and even though I was there when the door opened, I still waited two hours to speak to someone. When I was finally seen, the lovely woman was sympathetic and looked on my file to see what was holding up my claim. She could see that the application was almost complete, but Centrelink hadn’t contacted my "references". When you apply for the single parenting payment, you have to provide two references (friend, boss, etc.) who Centrelink can contact to verify that you and your partner are actually separated. This ridiculous extra step, in my view, serves little purpose, slows down the process, and adds a further humiliation, with the implication that the women applying for the single parenting payment (because it is mostly women) can not be trusted. The lady helping me told me that if she could get through to one of my references, she could process my claim on the spot. All those weeks and months of waiting, unable to move forward, and with a phone call and a few taps on the keyboard, my claim was processed. My next step was to try to rent an apartment as a single mum on the dole, yet another hurdle to climb!
At every step of this journey, I have thought about the women who aren’t as fortunate as me. What if I didn’t have family that I could stay with, rent and board free, while I waited months for the single parenting payment to come through? What if I didn’t have a job, or any other income, but had been a full-time caregiver to my son? What if I didn’t speak English as a first language? What if I hadn’t already had past experience dealing with Centrelink? What if I didn’t have internet access? The system is so difficult, and time-consuming to access, that it seems set up to make people fail. The fear of making an unintentional mistake and being lumped with a Centrelink debt that could cripple me financially hangs over my head with every convoluted form I fill in.
The biggest question for me during this time was: What about the women fleeing domestic violence? Surely they couldn’t wait months to have their claims processed? There used to be an exception that allowed women fleeing domestic violence to have their claims processed immediately, so that money didn’t have to be the thing that stopped them from being able to leave a violent relationship. That exception was very recently changed, so domestic violence survivors no longer get special treatment, but have to wait, along with the rest of us, potentially months for their single parenting payment to come through. I just don’t have the words to express how angry this makes me.
I’m starting to get on my feet now, eight months after the separation. But myself and my son will be financially impacted by the separation for the rest of our lives. So much needs to change to make things fairer for women, we have a long fight ahead of us but I’m hopeful that, with enough agitation, we’ll see some big changes in my lifetime. Amazing things happen when women work together for change.
Please note the author's name has been changed to protect their privacy.