In October, the Australian Council of Social Services study found child poverty amongst lone parent families has increased in Australia. There are now around 730,000 Australian children living in poverty.
This is what life is like on the other side of that line.
Nikki McWatters had a normal (no better word for it) upbringing. She grew up in Brisbane. The daughter of teachers. Middle-class. Went to a private school. Did well in her exams.
Then, between 17 and 25, a series of events – each as unpredictable as the next – saw Nikki go from living a ‘normal’ life, to living below the poverty line, raising three children on her own.
She depended on welfare payments and the money from any work she could find – cleaning, ironing, cleaning toilets – to scramble through the demands of every day life. Sending her kids to school. Putting food on the table. Providing shelter.
At one point, Nikki lived in a tent. Other times she couch surfed with her kids, crashing on friends’ sofas. Sleeping in strange, lonely living rooms.
Nikki and her children lived in abject poverty for 12 years.
“I moved to Sydney after finishing school. I got married fairly young and started a family. Everything, for a while was happy. You never expect things to go wrong,” she told me.
“When my marriage broke down very suddenly, I found myself as a single mother with no employment. My husband was the one who had been working, while I was at home with small children. What was I going to do? Welfare was not not enough to live on.”
At the time her husband left, Nikki had two children, both boys. A four-year-old and a two-year-old.
Seven years after this, Nikki had a third baby boy with a new partner. Unexpectedly, the man in her life died.
For the second time, Nikki’s future turned into something unrecognisable. She was now a single mother of three, living on welfare and a minimum wage. “The number of toilets I’ve cleaned in my life,” she said.
Listen to Nikki talking on I Don’t Know How She Does It about the time she was waiting in line at the Salvos and saw another school mum dropping off her unwanted gifts:
She mainly worked as a cleaner for families in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. She would work three, sometimes five, different jobs, just to make ends meet. Still, it wasn’t enough. Almost every fortnight, Nikki would take a welfare parcel for the bare essentials.
“I would work in millionaire’s house all day, cleaning a house that was already so clean, and I would come home and not have enough food for the dinner table,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are poor and who are working harder than any other people I know. It’s like running on a treadmill. You’re running so hard but you’re getting nowhere. It’s hard not to give up.”
When I asked Nikki if she ever did feel like giving up, she said: “Of course. I was seriously depressed. Depression and poverty go hand in hand”. But she kept going because of her kids.
When she did come undone, the smallest moments were often the trigger.
“I cried myself to sleep because I didn’t have coins for the Tooth Fairy. I had to leave an “I Owe You” in the tooth jar,” she said. “I’d make up excuses for why my kids couldn’t go to their friends’ birthday parties, because we couldn’t afford a birthday present.
“I’ve pinched toilet paper from public toilets and libraries, separating the ply on each roll to make it last longer. I would often top up a two-litre milk with tap water. I’ve had electricity cut off and had to bathe my kids in the kitchen sink. Sometimes we’d make an ‘esky bathtub’. Once, I didn’t have enough money for tampons. I made sure that only happened once. It was awful.”
It is also the smallest moments that Nikki remembers most fondly.
“My kids spent a lot of time at school and after-school care. Because of this, I tried to make the most of the time we did have together,” she said. “Obviously, we didn’t have money to go to the movies or theme parks, so we would spend a lot of time hanging out at home. Doing activities that are free. Playing Monopoly. Playing cards. We became a very close family.”
Nikki tried her best to hide the extent of their poverty from her children.
“I tried to protect them from the reality of exactly how poor we were. I made sure they never missed a school camp or excursion. I didn’t want them to stand out,” she said. “They never really felt poor. Sure, we lived in a tiny unit and some of their friends lived in huge mansions. But we had good friends that weren’t judgemental.
“There were times when my boys were bullied for not having money. They would get bullied because they wore Kmart shoes. I remember one of the children coming home saying they were asked; ‘Did your mother finally get a job? You’ve upgraded to Target shoes today’.”
Rock bottom came when Nikki was living in a tent with her three kids. By this time she had signed up to do a law degree (“I knew I had done very well in school. I realised it was not too late to follow my dreams. I just had to figure out how to do it.”). Her kids were in childcare full-time and she was using the library to type and print her assessments.
Then a hail storm destroyed the tent she lived in. Everything was, quite literally, “torn to shreds”.
“We had to move to an emergency cabin and it was absolutely horrible,” she said. “That was the turning point, I thought; ‘it doesn’t get worse than this’. I lived like that and saved every cent I could for a bond for an apartment.”
She moved to a small, “cockroach infested” apartment in Bondi. For those questioning her choice to live in the Eastern Suburbs: “It was 20 years ago, so rent was not as expensive as it is today. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford the act of moving anywhere else. My friends and children’s friends all lived in the Eastern Suburbs and it was easy to find cleaning work there. If I’d moved to the West, I would have had trouble paying for transport every day and I would have never seen my kids.”
“As it was, I was the first to drop them at daycare every day and the last to pick them up. My youngest was two. It broke my heart.”
Nikki would have done anything for stable employment.
She would have liked to stop working odd, unpredictable hours. To stop attracting the stigma that comes with depending on welfare. To stop working for people who found it acceptable to exploit her – paying her minimal wages; expecting her to do additional jobs for free; in one case, a real estate agent suggesting she pay for rent with sex if she was strapped for cash.
A stable, full time job would have solved all these problems. But who was going to hire her?
“No one is going to give a single mum a full time job in those circumstances. Because you’ve got kids who will need you unexpectedly. They’ll get chicken pox or the flu,” she said. “For one reason or another, my ex-husband was not in our lives during those years. He was not anywhere nearby. I hid a lot of what I was going through from my family in Brisbane. Sure, they helped, but I didn’t want them to know how bad things were. It was humiliating. I tried to do it myself.”
Slowly Nikki clawed herself out of poverty. Becoming a student helped boost her confidence (“You begin to believe you can do more than scramble and clean toilets. I started calling myself a ‘student’ and I felt like I had a different worth.”) Things also got easier as the kids got older. Nikki met a man and remarried. Together they started building a life. Slowly rising out of the depths of severe poverty.
Now Nikki is a law graduate. She has written two novels and her third, Hexen Haus, will be released this month.
“The scars from living like that will be with me forever. I don’t want to forget it,” she said. “It was a long-haul, getting out of poverty. But I realise the dreams I had back then, all the things I wanted, have actually, unbelievably happened. Now I’m setting new goals.”
And her three boys? Now 30, 27 and 20.
“They are in management and retail. They are artists and musicians. Travelling the world and working members of society. I am very proud of them,” she said. “They don’t forget their background, I’m sure. They remember the sacrifices I made. That we all had to make. We are a very close family.”
“To anyone who is right now struggling, and not able to put coins in the Tooth Fairy jar. Know that dreams can still come true. They can still happen. Even from such a bad place. If I can do it, anyone can.”