'You can't put mashed potatoes in a lunchbox'
Single mother families are disproportionately impacted by poverty and violence. Their experience of inequality and hardship has persisted for decades as a result of policy failure says Terese Edwards, CEO of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children (NCSMC).
“The effects of violence, low paid work, full-time parenting and the pandemic have all taken their toll,” Terese explains. “What we’re really dealing with here is government-sanctioned poverty.”
Established 50 years ago, NCSMC connects single mums to information, support services, and each other as a way of helping them make informed decisions that better protect and support themselves and their children. Social media has become an extremely effective tool for the organisation, which focuses its support primarily towards single mothers experiencing financial hardship, inadequate child support and domestic violence.
A tireless advocate and single mother herself, Terese Edwards was the winner of the Unsung Hero Award at the 2019 HESTA Community Sector Awards. In this recent conversation with The Wyatt Trust, she shares her experiences, her hopes and dreams for a fairer deal for single mums and their children.
Can you share a little of your own story and how you came to be CEO of NCSMC?
I became a single mum in 2002 when I was already gainfully employed in an executive position in the community sector. I was very fortunate in that I had resources, so unlike some other single mothers, I was never at threat of losing my house and my beautiful, chubby little toddler was never at threat of not being well fed or having his medical needs met. Of course it was tough, and I had no close family support around me, but I had all that was required.
At the same time I was on the board of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) representing the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) because I’ve always had a real passion for social justice and making sure everyone has what they need to thrive. I had the utmost respect for the then-leaders of NCSMC who, around 2005, were reporting some of the changes that were going to impact upon women. It was a trio of harm: income support, child support and family law. It was impossible for any woman who was about to become a single mum not to be harmed by at least one of those decisions which were driven by a nasty ideology at that time.
Around that time, I shared a taxi with the NCSMC chairperson and CEO who filled me in on what was happening, and I said, ‘Can I help?’ and they said, ‘Yes, join our management committee,’ and that was the start of it. When the CEO position became available in 2009 I took a leap of faith and accepted the job because I wanted a role in which my intellect was able to match my spirit.
What are the most common misconceptions about single mother families and what is the reality that you see?
Some of the most common misconceptions include the belief that single mums don’t want to plan for their future, or perhaps they’re bereft of aspiration for themselves and their children and they’re willing to accept a difficult life.
These misconceptions have influenced a lot of government policy which then influences community thinking.
When I talk to single mothers, I find that their sense of future planning and wanting to create an environment for themselves and their children to thrive, for their children’s talents and riches to come bubbling over, consumes nearly every waking moment. So, it’s a huge disconnect between what’s really happening and what’s believed to be happening.
By the time women find us at NCSMC they’re usually fatigued by the system and they’ve found us by googling late at night.
The most common characteristics I see in these women is first of all, an absolutely dogged determination and a belief that if I get knocked down, I may break and I might cry but I will rise again. These are women who have a real desire to make the most of every opportunity to smell the roses.
They also have a unique connection with their child because they are the only provider, educator, nurturer – there’s a real strength and closeness.
It’s important to remember that a breakup doesn’t always present stress. For some women they can actually breathe out and they can sing out loud and rejoice because they’re not having to walk on eggshells or protect their child. Sometimes it’s just about being able to love your family and create it in the way you want to.
I don’t want anyone to think single motherhood is a dark and dismal place – it is hard, but there’s also light and laughter.
What are some of the most concerning statistics when it comes to financial hardship and single mother families? Have they been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and inflation?
This is the bit that hurts my heart the most because we have what I can only describe as government-sanctioned poverty for single mums.
We’re finally understanding the depth and breadth of domestic violence and it co-exists with poverty and hardship. It’s quite intolerable for me to be living in one of the richest countries in the world knowing that children who are raised in single mother families are going to be three times more likely to have a childhood influenced and marked by poverty.
This means many of these children will fall behind in school because they won’t have the up-to-date books and while we know that public education is not free, what’s less known is that sometimes kids have to stay home from school because there’s not enough food to put in the lunchbox because you can’t put mashed potatoes in a lunchbox.
Those children take that poverty on themselves and the thing that I’ve seen hurt mothers the most is when their child has reached the age of awareness when they’ll hide the school notes about camp or book club or non-uniform days because they want to protect mum and don’t want her to shed tears about what the rest of their friends are doing.
I hear stories all the time of children not being able to have a mate over for a sleepover on their birthday because there’s not enough food, or that they couldn’t visit nanna because mum couldn’t afford to fill up the car up that day.
So many single mums prioritise their children’s participation in activities above their own health and hunger.
These are scenarios women don’t like to talk about, but we need to keep speaking about it.
Every voice adds to the chorus, and I think one of the best things NCSMC can do is to make sure lived reality is at the policy making table, that it’s in the media and before the public and there’s no more powerful way to do that than to have women telling their own story.
How important is the support of philanthropic organisations like The Wyatt Trust to NCSMC?
Philanthropic support is so important because it enables us to turn our ideas into a reality.
For example, some years ago I worked with a couple of great philanthropists to produce a 10-minute documentary and got it premiered in Parliament House and I had every party represented. The doco featured the voices of 10 single mums and we had enough support to ensure every one of them was there and we took it to Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.
Roll forward to 2019 when I and a victim of the reduction of income support attended the UN to speak to our complaint and we played the teaser of that documentary. It was very powerful.
My next desire is to do something that showcases the assets and strengths of single mums and challenges the stigma and subtext that continues to be associated with single mother families. We are so rich as a country, and we can do so much better.