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The work-life balance struggle for contemporary single mothers: Individual views and experiences.

The below report was written by TASA member Trudy Hart from original qualitative research undertaken in a 3rd year Applied Social Research course last year. The course was undertaken at University of Newcastle, coordinated by Dr Ann Taylor and supervised by Dr Julia Coffey.

Substantive information provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that ‘In 2012 there were 641,000 one parent families with dependants, and most (84%) were single mother families’. Given the over-representation of single mothers, I decided to investigate contemporary single mothers’ encounters and views towards managing a work-life balance. However, to interrogate this issue, it was necessary to conduct a thematic analysis of the effects of social policy, the flexibility of workplace cultures and support structures.

Social Policy

The Australian Government’s decision in 2006 to change the Parenting Payment Single (PPS) has been replaced by Newstart Allowance (a lower rate than the PPS), with additional requirements of single parents having to undertake voluntary work, paid work or actively seeking work at a minimum of fifteen hours per week when their youngest child turns six years old http://www.natsem.com.au/storage/welfaretowork.pdf. In 2013 the new work for welfare reform increased the youngest child’s age from six years old to eight years old http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/01/05/pove-j05.html. These measures were justifiable to the public by the government promoting it to be beneficial to single parent families both economically and psychologically. However, according to the Journal of Australian Social Work single parent families are encountering lower levels of psychological wellbeing in comparison to the overall population. The government’s ideological approach is for individuals to have a level of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Single mothers have difficulty juggling caring for children as well as welfare requirements in their everyday life. Feminists and philosophers rightly criticise the government’s circular, neo-liberal policies which emphasises on assisting people’s potential to live life independently.

Flexibility of workplace cultures

Analysis from the Australian Work and Life Index found that organisational culture lacks support for employees, and work overload are the two highest factors inhibiting work-life balance. Mothers are time poor, juggling unpaid work and caring for their children indicating that parenthood also plays a significant effect on women’s work-life balance. Casual stipulations lack protection and flexibility for single mothers, who are already feeling the stress of lack of work-life balance.

Support Structures

According to the BMC Public Health Journal, social support for single mothers assists with work responsibilities, family commitments and duties, which is described as work-family conflict theory. Support with informal childcare helps single mothers to cope with the demands of employment, although this can be unreliable, and in some instances this support is expected to be reciprocated. Single mothers are enduing irregular work hours due to casual employment, unreliable and costly childcare facilities, school holidays and their children’s sickness, proving that social support for single mothers is necessary. Single mother’s health and wellbeing is jeopardised when they are confronted with a lack of social support in combination with the government and workplaces failing to recognise circumstances individually. Health effects such as ‘stress, fatigue and poor mental health’ are described as negative outcomes for single mothers under this new government regimen.

Separate interviews with four single mothers between 32 years and 49 years old, with primary school and high school age children were asked: What are the experience and views of contemporary single mothers towards work-life balance? How influential is social policy, workplace culture and social constructions in enhancing or inhibiting work-life balance?

Analysis

  1. Logistics of government policy (work for welfare) is problematic.

The government’s enforced requirements proved to be challenging for the participants, whether in their experiences and/or views. Having to continually navigate with overwhelming government policy daily that lacks individual circumstances, juggling work and their children’s needs indicates the impact on their wellbeing.

…….The policy pushed me to study, but now I’m in excessive debt. I find that it’s difficult to meet the government’s requirements when university finishes at the end of the year and it’s three months until enrolments for the next year and in that time, I must find additional work. What do women say when they are looking for work? Oh sorry, but I’ve got to work for twelve weeks at a minimum of fifteen hours a week, but when university resumes I can hardly do any hours? I also must earn an income to put food on the table. I earn a low hourly rate. I’m doing cash work, if I didn’t do cash work we would be homeless…..we would be homeless. (Justine: age 42 years, casual employment, one primary school age child, one high school age child)

……For me that tells a woman or a family that they’re not valued, what you’re doing is not enough, you need to be doing more than that and I think that’s wrong. I think that’s targeting a socio-economic group specifically, people that don’t need extra pressure on their self-esteem and I think it’s a recipe for disaster. You’re just going to have people that just can’t do that and they will suffer for it. It is not individualised….to have a calendar kick over on a computer system that Centrelink follows indicating that a certain time frame is up for a particular payment, has nothing to do with who I am as a person…… most women in these circumstances are from unreported domestic violence and what signal is the government sending them by treating them like this. I don’t understand how we got to be a society that just doesn’t value its citizens. (Fay: age 49 years, part-time employment, three high school age children)

The Journal of Australian Social Work informs us that ‘Liberal democratic governments rhetorically uphold the idea that each individual should be given maximum autonomy to achieve their own version of wellbeing’. The Australian Government’s Human Services Department, Centrelink adapts the neoliberal ideology and promotes itself as ‘assisting people to become self-sufficient’ and requires that a recipient ‘must meet activity or participation requirements to get a payment’ and that failure to do so will result in ‘no show, no pay’. For single mothers to be targeted by government that they must then adhered to a criterion just to receive the bare minimum of cash transfers to just survive has proven to be overwhelming. There is a need for government to separate single mothers from individuals on unemployment benefits, as there is ‘an ongoing obligation to care for their children’. Single mother’s experiences of work for welfare policies are more complex than those of individuals without these additional commitments’. Single mothers adhering to the government requirements are now enduring additional costs such as childcare.

  1. Job roles, workplace cultures and income loss inflict on work-life balance.

Three participants mentioned that due to their demanding positions, they could not leave the workplace instantly if their children were sick or they needed time off at short notice. (Linda: age 42 years, full time employment, two primary school age children), indicated that quite a few people at her work have children and do not pass judgement, however finds it difficult to leave the workplace as there is an ‘underlying threat of being perceived as unreliable’ and discusses work overload as a struggle ‘not just physically but mentally’.

…I received a phone call at work that my child was sick and I had to leave 20 minutes earlier from my end of shift, I got docked pay and got told that this is not on and not to happen again. (Susan: age 32 years, casual employment, three primary school age children)

All four participants had to prioritise work over attending activities at their children’s school and their children’s recreational and sporting activities to prevent a loss of income to be able to survive financially.

… My daughter is missing out on doing a sport this year as I can’t really afford it and I just can’t commit to both my children doing sports as I struggle to take one to training in the afternoons let alone two kids to training due to work. She just misses out on that. (Justine: age 42 years, casual employment, one primary school age child, one high school age child)

The threat of being perceived as unreliable, indicates that job commitment takes priority due to workplace culture dominated is acknowledged from analysis in the Australian Work and Life Index. The stress of juggling unpaid work, caring for their children, and adhering to a workplace culture impacts significantly on single mothers who work casual and full-time. Casualisation proposes a threat of workplace inflexibility and lacks protection creating impacts for single mothers and their children and full-time employment creates work overload.

  1. Self-conflict with asking family and friends for help/support.

Participants indicated that there are negative emotions accompanying with asking for help such as the feeling of guilt and failure and finds that when help is offered it is always expected to be reciprocated. Self-conflict was also prominent with having to ask for support, whether spontaneously from friend or regularly from family which according to the BMC Public Health can trigger a lack of control and adverse health impacts ‘such as increased stress, fatigue, and depression were commonly reported’.

…..I think there’s that guilt because I need to work full time and sometimes I need to rely on my parents, so getting around those emotions is hard and difficult. If I didn’t have my parents to help me, my daughter wouldn’t be able to go to swimming lessons and I already spend a lot on childcare for after school care. I don’t think I would be able to work full time either, but I need to work full time to survive financially…. and I think it would affect my mental health as well, trying to do it all on my own. (Linda: age 42 years, full time employment, two primary school age children)

……..They will then ask me to look after their kids, how do you say no. You can’t as next week I may need the help again off them. I find that hard as then on top of everything else that I must do, I now have an additional task of looking after someone else’s kids. Otherwise my kids will stay home alone. My kids are home alone every afternoon without an adult as I have to work and don’t want to ask for help on a regular basis. (Justine: age 42 years, casual employment, one primary school age child, one high school age child)

 ……….We just try and manage. When the kids were in primary school, I would take my lunch break at 3pm to pick the kids up from school, take them home and settle them, they would be home alone, and then I would go back to work until 6pm. (Fay: age 49 years, part-time employment, three high school age children)

Contemporary single mothers are encountering difficulties towards managing a work-life balance. Single mother’s experiences and views emphasise the struggle of maintaining paid work and recreational time in conjunction with adhering to social policy. The logistics of the government’s work for welfare policy is problematic, as it focuses on a compliance framework of self-reliance and punishes the disadvantaged and the non-compliant. In addition, contending with workplace culture and the lack of social supports, influences work-life balance and wellbeing of single mothers that have the most important job of all, raising the next generation.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, ‘One parent families’, viewed 23 April 2017, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/6224.0.55.001~Jun%202012~Chapter~one%20Parent%20Families

Campbell, M, Thomson, H, Fenton, C & Gibson, M 2016, ‘Lone parents, health, wellbeing and welfare to work: a systematic review of qualitative studies’ BMC Public Health, vol.16, pp. 188-198.

Church, M 2013, ‘Australian government cuts welfare payments to single parents’, World Socialist Web Site, viewed 21 May 2017, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/01/05/pove-j05.html

Grahame, T & Marston, G 2012, ‘Welfare-to-work policies and the experience of employed single mothers on income support in Australia: Where are the benefits?’, Journal of Australian Social Work, vol.65, no.1, pp. 73-86.

Harding, A, Ngu Vu, Q, Percival, R & Beer, G 2005, ‘The distributional impact of the proposed Welfare-to-Work reforms upon sole parents’, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling [NATSEM], viewed 21 May 2017, http://www.natsem.com.au/storage/welfaretowork.pdf

Skinner, N & Pocock, B 2010 ‘Work, life, flexibility and workplace culture in Australia: Results of the 2008 Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) Survey, Australian Bulletin of Labour, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 133-153.