May 11, 2011 Part one on the new single parent education program. My experience. Or “Do you think you deserve it?”
There’s a bit of talk around about a new pilot program the Gillard government has announced. Depending on where you read it it is assistance to help educate some of society’s most vulnerable, or a tough crackdown on welfare teens whereby payments will be withheld if teen parents do not enrol their baby in childcare at the age of one in order to go back for HSC-equivalent qualifications.
I’m slightly ambivalent about this program. I need more information and I don’t have the time to find it yet. All I can do to start thinking through what I think about it is to talk about my experience and read more and write about it later when I have time to research it more. I’m in the middle of essays, about to start cramming for take-home exams, I’ve been up at four a.m more days than not in the last two weeks, I’m working four days a week, I’m studying three legal subjects this semester, I’m raising a special needs child who got himself into the ‘selective’ (gifted and talented) stream in a nearby high school, and yes. I was a teen parent, and today was the day I could tell Centrelink I have begun to earn ‘too much’ for their support. (I expected an alarm to sound and for someone to whip around to collect my ‘pension card’ but the only message was ‘Oh well. Report again next fortnight, you might get something then’. They’ve never really grasped the concept of permanent work where the pay is the same each fortnight).
I don’t need convincing that education is the ‘silver bullet’ because I have been working hard for ten years (having to take two years off in the middle when the participation rules changed to not include education anymore) to get a double degree in Arts Law so that I wasn’t consigned to a job that bored me and never paid me enough, a job with no job security, casual work in customer service where 1 in 10 customers would treat you like dirt – the only sorts of jobs I could get when I fell pregnant as a teenager, and when my child was small. I’m not running down the people who work those jobs, though I am running down the casualisation of the workforce and the cycle of poverty and entrapment those jobs can create. At 30 I had almost NO super because of those jobs. My son is (or was, he’s much better now) a chronic asthmatic who would be hospitalised with accute attacks once or twice a year. There goes the rent for the week.
I don’t need convincing that there is hopelessness and despair in our society, or that teenage pregnancy can trap people in a cycle of poverty: not enough time to study even if the self-belief is there (it wasn’t for me until a counselor insisted I wasn’t depressed I was bored and needed to be challenged), too tired from trying to pay the bills, ground down by lack of sleep and isolation and work involving standing all day and why can’t I make it work, why can I still not pay the bills, what is wrong with me?
I don’t need convincing that there are whole areas where unemployment, drinking and teen pregnancy are huge interconnected issues. I’m also not asserting that only ‘some kinds’ of kids get pregnant early. But I grew up in areas that were pretty bleak in their outlook, areas with high unemployment and suicide rates, little money and lots of aggression, places where it was hard to ‘dream big’, where it was hard to imagine any kind of successes, where the major entertainment on offer if you didn’t have a hideout group (I spent my teenaged years at a local youth group and despite being an atheist now I will forever be grateful for the excuse to get out of the ‘beach parties’ where the boys killed ducks and gang raped drunk girls, and no I am not in any way exaggerating that) was to get shitfaced drunk at the local oval leaving girls particularly extremely vulnerable. I grew up in areas where girls were just there to stand around admiring whatever idiot thing it was the boys were doing and where boys had to prove their ‘manliness’, where my friend described sex with her long term boyfriend as feeling like a ‘stick’ in there but where she felt compelled to continue with it.
I remember reading and reading and reading as a child. I read and re-read Anne of Green Gables pining for an existence of muslin and bosom-friends, and brooks and fields and cracking slates over boys heads. I knew there was more, and different, a place where I wouldn’t always be yelled at and slapped, where people didn’t argue about stupid things, where nice things actually happened and weren’t just promised if Dad won on the horses (which he never ever did) and I had an insatiable appetite for it. But somewhere along the line I got ground down. I didn’t believe in myself or my prospects, I didn’t believe in my capacities or intelligence, I didn’t see anything around me worth aiming for. I took off to uni to escape but it lasted a year, and the wheels fell off and I thought ‘Screw it, everyone else is getting drunk and having sex and not caring, why can’t I’. Again, nothing wrong with drinking and sex per se, but when you’ve got zero self esteem it’s a road to disaster, and disaster inevitably found me.
I shacked up with the first guy I had sex with. He was a bit of a turd. I don’t know why I hooked up with him except that he looked at me with desire and that made me feel like something special. If only I’d known that at 17 most heterosexual guys were looking at me with desire I might have been a little more discerning. But I felt wanted, briefly, and that was enough. That bit didn’t last long and it got violent. I took off and hid out at a ‘half-way’ house. I met another guy there. I felt sorry for him. That was all it took in those days for me to love something. I just wanted to give sympathy because I believed it would magically ‘fix’ things and I’d seen a lot of shit I couldn’t fix and I wanted to wave my magic wand and live that different life. But well that didn’t work out so well either. Bun in the oven to a guy eight years older, with a messed up past, an inability (or unwillingness) to deal with it, and by the time my baby was born and he was drinking and taking drugs in earnest, the dawning realisation that my life was not quite turning out all ‘Anne-of-Green-Gables’
One excruciating evening I saw a ‘Kylie Mole’ Christmas ‘special’ where she was talking about what she’d been up to and I wanted to die: she was describing my life. I’d dreamed of Anne of Green Gables and woken up Kylie Mole.
There were a couple of ‘moments’ for me in my ‘Isn’t it great the child has a father and his mother isn’t on welfare‘ life. The first when I came home after a day’s work (casual of course) to find miniFPs dad motherless drunk with the music at a deafening volume. When I turned it down I heard my son screaming. I knew he’d been screaming for a long time. I saw red and threw myself at his father – all six foot six of him – I wanted to kill him, or maybe I wanted him to kill me, I certainly screamed the words I knew would make him hit me “YOU ARE THE BIGGEST FUCKING LOSER I HAVE EVER MET IN MY LIFE”. Luckily when he stood up to kick me he fell backwards through the wall.
I took my child and ran to a neighbour and shouted about How DARE he?? and I NEED TO LEAVE HIM! until her oh-so-well-meaning boyfriend convinced me that he was just drunk, and didn’t know better, and go put him to bed, that’s your job in these situations, he loves you and he loves his child, and it will all be okay in the morning. That’s how fucking malleable I had let myself become: I listened and didn’t leave.
Then one day my son was crying and I was furious with him. With him. In reality I was angry because his father was an irresponsible fuckwit and because I was the one enabling it and I’d woken up in my mother’s life juggling hard just to keep things going while your dickhead alcoholic husband continues to act like a clueless irresponsible turd and bumble his way through life glorifying his teenaged years and never fucking growing up, angry because you have to be adult enough for two and it’s a desperate, desperate life situation.
Maybe a week later? I’d gone down one morning at dickface’s request to hock something to get him more cigarettes before he went to work. The hock shop didn’t open as early as I thought and I knew I’d still be home on time so I chatted with my neighbour instead of calling (did we even have a phone line?). On our walk back I told her to leave it half an hour til he’d gone to work and then come up for a cup of tea. When I got back he launched at me as I came in the door and abused the living shit out of me. I can’t remember for what. I just remember desperately trying to get control and being worried about how I would compose myself before she came up. And there it was: I was worried about how it would look to her not about how it actually was. Something cracked and clear as a bell came the thought “I wasn’t built for this”.
I packed up and moved and I took everything I needed so I didn’t ever have to come back. We had a hired tv in my name and I took it with me because I knew he’d smash it in anger.
I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. I knew he’d gone on a bender and somehow knew that he’d slept with a prostitute. When he finally did call the first thing he said is “Why did you have to take the tv”.
Anyway…that was the beginning of the turnaround I guess: I had to go on to parenting payment, and I moved home with my parents. I got a job at K-Mart and worked casually. It was pretty comfortable, at least compared with living with an alcoholic fuckwit you had to hide the last $20 from so you could buy nappies rather than him buying pot.
After a while though I remembered the dynamic in my family that had bothered me before I moved out and I started to see a counselor. I decided to strike out on my own – first I joined a Christian group that unfortunately was a bit like a cult and they ground me down a bit and told me I could never get married (read have sex) ever again because that’s how God viewed divorce. Then they took me on a ‘missionary trip’ and I had a bit of a meltdown when they took me to Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory when the people I was with showed a staggering lack of the compassion they claimed they had dibs on.
When I got back I decided to move out and into a rental house on my own. I figured I needed a more long term plan and went to do a course on computers: typing, basic word processing, that sort of stuff. It was about then that I found that around every period I would find myself deeply ‘depressed’ staring at the wall, unable to motivate myself to do anything. One day I confessed this to the counselor who said so insistently, with so much certainty that I was compelled to really hear it ‘You are BORED, you need to be challenged, you need an outlet for your mind’. Yes, that sounded feasible – I’d once had ambitions, once dreamed of ‘doing something with my life’.
So I went to a Uni open day and had a bit of an ‘epipha-tree’ moment (or probably it was part of my self punishing ‘Choose the hardest thing you can think of, set yourself up to fail and then punish yourself’ thing that I do) and applied for, and got into (thanks to my marks in that one year of uni) a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws. I chose the hardest thing on offer and ran at it head first.
And now when I look back at the beginning of being a single mother it’s like a different world. Frequently I thought I couldn’t do it. I was told I wouldn’t do it by two close (ex) friends, that no-one expected me to finish. Well fuck all the no-ones, I’ll be a lawyer soon.
I needed the support from the government to strike out alone. I love my family and some things have changed but the dynamic the way it was was not going to work. Though they loved me, and they loved my son I needed to go forward and find out for myself who I was and what I wanted.
It was long and lonely and to be quite blunt I couldn’t get a fuck in like eight years. That was pretty rough. I suppose I could have if I’d tried a bit harder, but I was a Mum and it was awkward and anyway, as tough as that was well praises to your preferred deity or snackfood because it was that I think that really let me have the space to find out who I was (I’m not saying that sex would have hurt those improvements but I do think that for me I needed a lot of time alone to work out what I thought a successful enjoyable life looked like and what I wanted).
I was lucky: I’m a white girl in a world where whiteness is an asset. I was lucky in that I don’t have any hurdles to overcome in terms of learning disorders. I was lucky in that I am able bodied (although I didn’t sleep properly for about a decade and consequently I have excruciating days-long headaches, muscle aches, leg cramps etc). I was lucky in that I met people who challenged me. I was lucky in that I inherited via MiniFPs dad’s family just a small amount enough for the first term at a school that made me want to send my son there, made me fearful of the comparison with the local school in the coastal area I was in, that let me move to Sydney to live in a sharehouse filled with the people who challenged me. I was lucky: I was always able to find some kind of work to get me through. I took a chance and then another chance would seem to open up. I was lucky in that ‘book learnin’ is something I seem cut out to do.
I was lucky in so many ways and still it was the most excruciatingly hard process. It was so lonely, so isolating, so exhausting: no matter what work/study/home balance I struck I always felt I was letting someone down, failing as a parent etc. I couldn’t sleep because the work was casual and I didn’t know if I could pay the next bill. I copped attitude from my son’s schools, I copped attitude from some parents, from some students, some members of the public, and from some teachers.
As it went on it got easier I guess: when I got a permanent job rather than casual the insomnia reduced and I could focus on other things more easily. But even then I was memorably publicly humiliated when a tutor asked for an amusing ‘red-tape’ story and I said that the new participation requirements and the way they were administered meant that every few months I needed to take a day off work to go to the Centrelink office to have an interview and sign a piece of paper to say I would do less than what I was doing (not that they wanted me to decrease just that the ‘minimum’ I had to sign up for I was exceeding about threefold) so they would pay me a stipend of by then about $60 a fortnight and he stopped and stared and said “But do you think you deserve that money?”. (No, knobhead, it wasn’t a story about ‘deserving’ to get it with no hassles, it was a story about red tape, I mean seriously. We want you to do something 15 hours a fortnight: you work (in a permanent role) 30 hours a fortnight and study about ten hours a fortnight, so do you think you could take a day off and we can explain what you already know and get you to sign a declaration that you will make sure you do what you already do?).
Anyway. The point? Education has been everything. I managed to work, and I managed thereby to decrease the amount of money Centrelink paid me but it’s been education that’s helped me grow and change and find confidence and believe I will have a career and to build my child up to believe he can do anything. I know that in sole parent families they say it’s the education levels of the mother that have the biggest influence on how a child will do at school. And that’s not an ‘Aren’t I awesome’ thing, that’s an ‘I’m so grateful’ thing.
To go back to what I was saying at the beginning…no one needs to convince me that education is key. It’s just that with all my luck, with all my ‘blessings’ and strengths, it has taken every ounce of determination I possess, and the support of counselors and friends, and it’s cost me financially, socially, and in years of lost sleep: and all the while I copped the ‘YEAH: BUT DO YOU THINK YOU DESERVE IT’. I am frightened for these girls. They are being pushed into parting company with their babies at one, to get their HSC. And the HSC is not enough: they’ll need more education. And if they DO it, if they do what is considered ‘right’ they still will cop the ‘But do you think you deserve it?’ attitude. The ‘Shouldn’t you have just dropped out, accepted your lot and worked in KMart for the rest of your life so you’re not a drain on society’ line. Never mind that my education will serve the nation, never mind that their line is the more educated I am the better off my son is, never mind that I didn’t do what they expected of me and shack up with some other guy and have more children, never mind that my son’s flourishing and I have worked almost the whole time and reduced the payments made to me, never mind any of that because as a single mother you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t and the overwhelming message, whatever the choices you make will be “Yeah…but do you think you deserve it?’