real life

Your marriage might have failed, but that does not make you a failure.

JK Rowling says her greatest achievement was raising her daughter as a single mum.

“I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life. Yes, I got off benefits and wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother, but nothing makes me prouder than what Jessica told me recently about the first five years of her life: “I never knew we were poor. I just remember being happy.” J.K. Rowling

Not unlike a cancer diagnosis, we never think it will happen to us in the post-honeymoon glow of our marriages.  Despite over one in three marriages ending in divorce, all of us think we will be the rule, not the exception.  People divorce for many different reasons.  The marriage may have been broken by infidelity, abuse, excessive conflict, addictions, mental health difficulties or simply a waning of connection and love over time.  If there are no children involved, divorce is a painful, expensive and distressing end to a marriage.  If there are children involved, it is also the demise of the family unit, with potentially shattering impacts upon the children and an ongoing need for communication and shared parenting for the indefinite future.

Becoming a single mum following divorce is one of the most devastating life events to live through, and yet, it is not discussed much.  Anywhere.  Except perhaps amongst single Mums, like some dirty little shameful secret.  Around 20% of families with children less than 15 years of age are headed by a single parent, nearly 90% of those by mothers.  That’s one in five families.  In Australia, 24% of children in single parent households are living in poverty versus 7% in households with two parents.  Single mothers are more likely to experience mental health difficulties than partnered mothers. Children from single parent families are twice as likely to suffer mental health problems compared with children from two parent households. Stigmatisation of single mothers remains alive and well and this is compounded by financial stress.

Why as a society are we not talking about this more?  Why do we play the blame game and label single mothers with any number of horrible terms? In no particular order, single mothers are told; they are easy, they are slutty, they got pregnant with some random guy, they sponge off welfare and honest tax payers, they should work and stay home with their kids simultaneously, they should have tried harder to keep their marriages together, they are man haters but are not to be trusted around other women’s husbands, they take money they haven’t earned unfairly from their ex-husbands, they have troubled kids who are suffering without a man in the house, they are pitiful, they are incomplete, they party irresponsibly whenever their ex has the kids, they are unbalanced, they have something wrong with them as they couldn’t keep their marriage together, that some man shouldn’t be expected to pick up the pieces of their bad choices.  Whatever they do, it will never be as good as married Mums.  And it is their fault.  Be honest – have you had these thoughts about single Mums?  If you are a married mother with children, how would you feel if, all of a sudden, these labels were applied to you?

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I would like to share with you what I have learned about being a single mum over the past five years, from my own experience and from those of dozens of friends and clients.  This is not to ignore the difficulties experienced by or minimise the contribution of so many wonderful single Dads out there, but that is a topic for another day.

1.     There is no such thing as a nice, easy divorce.

There is no such thing as an easy divorce

There is theoretically such a thing as a “good” divorce involving children.  It is one in which both parties remain rational and adult, divide assets fairly in the opinion of both, do not argue or fight, support one another in parenting, agree on custody and remain friends.  I have never seen or heard of such a divorce.

Negotiating a custody arrangement and financial settlement are flash points for resentment and strong emotions, which derail logic and what is in the best interests of the children.  Money and children can be used as weapons to hurt the other party and lawyers tend to fuel an adversarial and hostile approach.  The best advice I received was ironically from my lawyer.  She said, “Take what is on the table, move on, use your time and energy to build your life and your income.  It is not worth the fight”.

Drawing up parenting plans that agree on rules and logistics can be helpful, as can establishing formal communication methods, like using email or texts.  Try to minimise using lawyers and don’t sweat the small stuff like who gets the coffee table or what the kids are being given in their lunch boxes when they’re not with you.  Retain your dignity and integrity and don’t get caught up in slanging matches with your Ex.  No one wins in these exchanges.

2.     Shared parenting is an oxymoron.

There are, in all likelihood, divorced couples who do shared parenting very well.  Who are able to communicate effectively without animosity, who do not use their children to communicate, who are able to put their children’s interest first every time.  In reality, this is exceedingly difficult when you see your children go to stay with their father.  Your home is instantly a house that is too quiet, empty and childless.  It is like losing a limb.  The hard truth is that, as long as your children are safe, it is not your business anymore what happens at your ex-husband’s house.  You have to resist diminishing, dismissing and name calling your Ex to your children.  They need a good relationship with their Dad for their future wellbeing and as hard as it is, you need to encourage that as much as is reasonable.  Easy to say, so very hard to do sometimes.

Shared parenting is meant to be about sharing equally the responsibility of raising children in a holistic sense – financially, physically and emotionally.  If you have your children 12 nights out of 14,, this is very difficult to do in practice.  As primary caregiver, you are likely to end up making most of the day-to-day decisions, taking days off work to care for sick children, doing school / activities runs, filling in school forms and wiping away tears.  I know this may not sound much different to married Mums.  The difference is you will be doing it without the back up of another parent.

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3. Work:Life balance will no longer exist.

Samantha Young

Child support payments are calculated based on number of nights care and combined taxable income.  If you have stayed home or worked part-time to raise your children, it is likely you will a) not have much Super b) not be earning much compared with your ex-husband and c) struggle to find flexible employment that will accommodate child-care responsibilities.

Let’s say you currently earn $35,000 working part-time and your ex-husband earns $85,000.  You agree to share custody of the children. Your ex-husband is required to pay you $111 a week.  You will need to pay for rent, food, utilities, schooling costs, activities and other associated living expenses, as all of these things are included in the CSA cost tables.  So, you work more and earn $50,000.  Your ex-husband is now required to pay you $152 a fortnight.  You will also lose Family Assistance benefits as you earn more.

You will need to make cold hard trade-offs.  Earn more and have less time for the children or work less and struggle financially.  Either way, you will feel guilty.  It is also lonely.  Family dinnertime is important and often lovely, but as the only adult around the table, who do you share your special moments with now, who do you talk with about your worries and fears for the kids, who do you debrief with once the kids are in bed?

The relentlessness of single parenting is exhausting.  If you get sick, you’re it.  You have to still look after the kids.  Meals, shopping, washing, cleaning, home maintenance, taxi driving to activities, making and attending medical appointments, school lunches, homework supervision, discipline, school runs, play dates, attending school events, paying the bills, organising holidays and birthday parties, bed time, reading, spelling lists.  Yours.  And married friends will say “You are so lucky you have every second weekend off, I wish I got a break sometime.”

4. Re-partnering is tough with kids.

Many of my single Mum friends had only slept with one man, their ex-husband, for 15 years.  The prospect of meeting someone new and having sex with them is utterly terrifying.  How do you meet someone?  Internet dating warrants an entire article of its own.  When do you fit in going on dates when you have the kids 12 nights a fortnight?  What are you meant to talk about or wear for God’s sake? How do you contemplate getting naked without the lights off?  When do you introduce them to the kids? Do you risk moving in together and blending families?  What if his kids hate you or your kids?  Do you get a Cohabitation Agreement signed?  This is a time of many questions and fears, but also one of exciting new opportunities.

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Seeing your Ex start seeing someone else, move in with them or re-marry can be upsetting.  It may be tempting to conclude that it was in fact your fault, due to your flaws and personality weaknesses, that your marriage failed as your ex has moved on and loves someone else.  Your kids might hate his new partner and / or her kids, they might want to live with them more than you, and they might make hurtful comparisons or try to play you off against one another.  Keep in mind, there are two sides to every separation, and your Ex’s new partner will only have heard his and as a result, is unlikely to feel very warm towards you.

5. You will feel like a failure.  And then you will be OK.

Your marriage failed, but that does not make you a failure.

There is nothing wrong with you.  Trust me on this.  Your marriage failed, you are not a failure.  You will not remain single for the rest of your life.  Your marriage was not a mistake.  Look at your children to prove this.  If nothing else came of it, they did, and they are the most precious things in your life that I know you wouldn’t trade for anything or anyone.  It will get easier and you will discover amazing things about yourself that you would never have known otherwise.  You are strong, independent, desirable, able to put out the bins on your own, wield an electric screwdriver like a boss and have a collection of silicon guns!  You are also a great Mum.  Trust me on this one too.  You are doing your best and your best is good enough.  You are the best Mum your kids will ever have and they love you.

Build support networks and ask for help.  Lower your expectations of yourself.  Try to cultivate forgiveness and let go of resentment, anger and hostility.  When you are ready, let yourself find love again and be loved.  Surviving divorce is not a one off event that occurs in the months post-separation.  It is an ongoing process, especially when children are involved.  It changes your very world – your self-concept, your lifestyle, your children, your financial future, your social network, your view of intimate relationships and your priorities.  You will be OK and your kids will be OK, I promise.  As a society, maybe we can start supporting mothers of all types and thereby their children?  The competitive comparisons and nasty value judgements make us our own worst enemies.  After all, aren’t we all doing our best by our children?  If you’re lucky enough to be in a happy marriage, enjoy and treasure it. You never know what tomorrow brings.

Samantha is a psychologist, business owner, coach and writer and is passionate about working with individuals and companies to realise their potential and implement meaningful change.  She also hopes to be a breast cancer survivor so she can be a grandmother one day.  She is planning to write a book about the psychological impact of getting diagnosed with breast cancer but for now, is planting pansies and playing the piano.

Are you a single mum? What has the experience been like for you? What advice would you give others?

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