“I was cleaning Kerry Packer’s mansion while my kids and I lived in a tent.”

If you are worried about not having a Hatchimal for your kid on Christmas morning, you are in for a reality check.

Because you’re about to meet Nikki McWatters.

Nikki is a best-selling author and a mother of five. But once, she was a single mum so poor she lived in a tent with her kids and relied on the Salvation Army handing out parcels of free presents for kids in need.

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:

Nikki grew up in a “good” home, but was a pretty rebellious teenager, dreaming of being an Oscar-winning actress and falling for punk rockers.

Leaving home to chase rock bands around Sydney, she soon found herself married to a roadie, and then… divorced with two little kids.

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Alone, in the big city, with babies, it was time for Nikki to work out how to survive. “I had a dive in Bondi, it was absolutely horrible. I had milk-crates as furniture… I had left with nothing, and I had to start again.”

Nikki cleaned houses where she could – some pretty famous houses, like the one that belonged to Kerry Packer in Sydney’s swanky Bellevue Hill.

But work – and life – is precarious when you are a single mum to babies.

Nikki McWatters in her groupie days, as recounted in her first book - One Way Or Another.

"They get sick. Once we had six weeks of chicken pox... You'd have to take them to work - like at cleaning Kerry Packer's, they were running around, the Ming vases were shaking."

Then she found herself in love again.

"It was the turning point, I was in love, everything's amazing, here we go, happy families. And then he died.

"That's when everything came out from under me..."

That's the beginning of the story that saw Nikki and her now three kids living in a tent in northern New South Wales for some time, and couch-surfing in Sydney at others.

What no-one understands about "poor" single mothers, Nikki says, is the isolation and shame.

"We talk about the glass ceiling. For single mothers, there's the wooden ceiling. Unless you've been there, you have no idea how tough it is and how hard it feels to be able to get out.

The tent where Nikki and her three children lived for a Summer.

"There's a lot of stigma for single mothers, like they're just on the cask wine waiting for the next daddy to come along. It's not like that at all. It's not a lifestyle choice. No-one wants to be living like that."

Especially not at Christmas. Or on the many, many days you need to bank-roll the tooth fairy.

"I remember once not having any money for the tooth fairy, not even a dollar - not that day, pay day was the next day, or whatever. So I wrote a little pretend cheque and told them it was the same as money that they could cash in for money on pay day.

"One year the Salvation Army handed out toy parcels for kids who were struggling. And when I turned up to collect them, there was another mother from school turning up with all these toys to donate and I had to hide behind a bin, I was so humiliated to be on the other end of that."

So, if you know someone who's struggling, and you're lucky enough to be able to help, how do you go about it.

Nikki and I Don't Know How She Does It host Holly Wainwright in the Mamamia offices.

"You have to realise they will be feeling quite humiliated by the situation they're in...What really changed it for me was opening up and talking about it, being honest and not wearing it all my self. Because really, it's a huge burden and you live in a bundle of knots of stress.

"I felt like a rat in a maze for many years... Looking at the rat maze from up above now you can say hey, it's easy. But when you're there, every time you turn around you hit another wall. I lived in a state of panic for many years."

Now, Nikki no longer lives in a state of panic.

She lives on the Central Coast with her husband and three of her now five children. Her younger kids, Nikki says, have no idea what it's like to live with nothing, as their childhood has been, by comparison, privileged.

"Unless you've been there, you don't understand how hard it is to get out."

But Nikki McWatters did.

She did a law degree, wrote a book, got it published, wrote another one... Now that's how she earns her living, and she lives near the beach, meditates and is kind to herself.

"I cried the other day, because my new book is in the Dymocks books catalogue, and there were so many years when I couldn't even afford books for my kids."

Listen to the full episode of I Don't Know How She Does It. 

To subscribe to any of our podcasts, and to buy Nikki's latest book, or any other book mentioned on our shows, please go here

You can donate to the Salvation Army, here

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