real life

5 things I wished I knew before I became a single mum.

Fiona Sunderland separated from the father of her kids 12 months ago.

Twelve months ago I separated from the father of my children and thought I was going to be the poster girl for amicable, straightforward separations.

Since then I’ve learned that no matter how mutually the decision to part was made, the road to sole parenting always has its challenges.

This is what I’ve learned:

1. Focus on you (so you can focus on the kids).

I like to think of myself as a tough chick who can cope with most challenges. And so I can. But in hindsight, I was so focused on minimising the impact on the children that I didn’t allow enough time for me. Having more childfree time would have allowed me to work through the financial and emotional challenges more quickly; worrying less and sleeping better.

As it was, I survived on around five hours sleep a night for months. Although I don’t think I was a bad mother during that time, I was sometimes disengaged too – the children’s bedtime routines got a bit lax and my three-year-old didn’t get enough one-on-one attention from me. So she started throwing (more) tantrums to make me focus on her. In other words, you can’t focus on the children if you don’t take care of yourself.

If you’re not functioning very well on a daily basis, go and see your GP who may also refer you to a counsellor. These days there are lots of non-addictive medications that you can take for sleep problems and a counsellor can give you useful strategies for how to deal with worries. Switch your phone off and put it somewhere hard to reach to avoid the temptation to check it for texts/emails during the night. Choose a happy topic before you go to bed and if you wake, divert your mind to that. Tell yourself that you trust yourself to find a solution to whatever problem occurs – tomorrow – also helps.

2. Uncertainty is a bitch    

Get your head around your finances (and get used to doing the grocery shopping alone).

Nothing takes up headspace like dealing with uncertainty. Your mind runs through the ‘what ifs’ and then the solutions to problems that haven’t happened yet. You don’t need to sprint down to court but get legal advice sooner rather than later. A 50/50 split is by no means inevitable. Your lawyer will want to hear a financial history of the relationship as well as what non-financial contributions to the relationship you both made. Remember, being a SAHM counts as a contribution.  The best advice my lawyer gave me was try to sort it out without going to court. Use your lawyer’s advice about the most likely outcome if it went to court and work out what you think you would be happy with. If you’re on relatively good terms with your ex, try talking or use a mediation service. Both these options are far, far cheaper than going to court.

3. Get your head around your finances     

I tell my friends that learning to live on welfare may well make me a millionaire later when I start earning a salary again. I’m enormously proud of managing my money sensibly and putting modest amounts into my savings each fortnight. Working out your finances isn’t rocket science but it is time-consuming and essential.

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Before you separate, call Centrelink or use their online calculators and check out how your current entitlements (eg. Family Tax Benefit, Childcare Benefit) will change and what new payments you might be entitled to (eg. Parenting Payment). Next, go through all your expenditure and work out a budget. If you have a mortgage and are worried about your repayments, contact the bank. Better to give them a heads up and discuss your options than to default on your payments without letting them know. They may allow you to postpone payments for a few months. Going to interest only repayments could also help.

There are lots of online resources that can help you with budgeting but the key is to make sure you know what you’re spending each fortnight then setting money aside to cover it. Some bills like car/home insurance, cable TV and a phone/internet bundle may be the same each month – others, like gas and electricity will vary so call your provider and ask what you spent over the last 12 months then average it out to fortnights. Call every one of your billers and see if you can negotiate a better deal. I cut down some of my bills by 50% simply by asking! Next, set up a fortnightly direct debit for each of your bills so you’ll never be surprised by a huge bill again.

4. Be realistic about what you’re aiming for with your ex    

“No matter how much you normally enjoy your own company, the house will feel odd without your children.”

I had a very idealistic view of what separation between my ex and I would look like. I wanted us to carry on sharing time together so the children would feel they were still part of a family. But in doing so and in wanting to follow the rule book of avoiding conflict, I also gave my ex far too much flexibility. This sometimes led to ridiculous situations where I still didn’t know on a Friday night whether they were staying with him that weekend because he wanted to keep his options open – particularly when a new girlfriend came on the scene.

It took way too long to realise that while a very flexible agreement suited him, it did not suit me and caused a lot of unnecessary angst. Fighting with your ex is obviously worst case scenario but having a bogus amicable situation is not sensible either. If you can’t work out a parenting agreement quickly, contact a Family Relationship Centre and go to mediation.

5. Plan your alone time         

No matter how much you normally enjoy your own company, the house will feel odd without your children. You’ll need to find the right balance between socialising and chilling but the key is to plan. It’s all too easy to look forward to a weekend to yourself and then wave them off thinking, “what now?” 

Fiona Sunderland is a sole parent to two small children. She reached dizzying heights middle management in her former career as a communications professional and is now aiming to change the world by becoming a social researcher.

Do you have any other pieces of advice for single mums? If you are a single mother, what have your experiences been?

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